From Catholic To Orthodox

By Thom Nickels

The word ‘orthodoxy’ can conjure up foul associations. There’s Bertrand Russell’s famous quote,

Orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence,”

which covers any sort of rigid or right thinking at the expense of creative thought.

Orthodoxy (lower case) implies a strict adherence to tradition against which Modernism doesn’t stand a chance. In Judaism, Orthodoxy is seen as that religion’s supreme, most traditional expression, its un-reformed essence. In Christianity, Orthodoxy which has never had a Second Vatican Council or anything approaching a Novus Ordo – Divine Liturgy with lay ministers and Protestant-style hymns – is a window into the ancient Church. In fact, you could search the world for a modern young Orthodox priest with a guitar and a penchant for humming “On Eagles Wings,” but chances are you wouldn’t find one. Priests like that never get a chance to bloom in Orthodoxy; or, if one was discovered in seminary, he’d be sent packing or be told to switch hit to the local Catholic Franciscans.

In the Orthodox Church there are no activist organizations of lay women clamoring to be priests (although Metropolitan Kallistos Ware admits that at some point in time the Church may have to consider the question). To date Orthodox women, however feminist their inclinations, haven’t splintered off and gotten themselves “ordained” by renegade bishops.

There are no Orthodox lay liturgists trying to reinvent or modernize the Divine Liturgy, either. In the eyes of the world, Orthodox Christianity has always been relegated to second tier status, taking a back seat to Catholicism’s power, even in this era of clergy sex abuse. As a box to be checked on applications and questionnaires, where religious affiliation means Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or other , Orthodoxy barely exists at all.

My first glimpse of Orthodoxy was at the 1964-1965 New York Worlds Fair. I’d gone to the Fair with my family primarily to visit the Vatican Pavilion, a modernist white building that had a futuristic look and that effectively mirrored the reformatting of Catholicism taking place in Rome at the Second Vatican Council. Inside the Pavilion was Michelangelo’s treasure, The Pieta, a major Fair exhibit that attracted people of all faiths. Inside the Pavilion there was also the modernist Chapel of the Good Shepard with its minimalist altar table, glass stained windows but not much else.

The chapel’s over-wrought simplicity made an impression on me. Not only did this new Catholic structure have a decidedly Presbyterian style, all the signature Catholic elements were missing except a crucifix. The intent seemed to be the creation of an interdenominational chapel where everybody would be made to feel at home. This was a Catholic chapel that didn’t want to offend Protestants by looking “too Catholic.”

At the time, I sensed that the chapel design hinted at coming changes in Catholic Church architecture.I was right. Most visitors, distracted by the media hoopla surrounding The Pieta (the Vatican Pavilion was the second most popular exhibit at the Fair, attracting some 27,020,857 guests) probably didn’t dwell on this fact that much. My sense is that many Catholics then excused minimalist, Protestant looking church interiors if there was enough stained glass to take the mind off what had been eliminated.

Not far from the Pavilion was a small log cabin church with a three-bar cross on top. I knew the cross to be Russian Orthodox. The chapel was a replica of the first Orthodox chapel in America built in the 1800s at Fort Hood, California. While the rustic exterior put one in mind of Lincoln Logs or Lewis and Clark expeditions, the interior – we had to peer through the windows because the chapel was locked – revealed something startling: a small chandelier illuminating a colorful iconostasis in the center of which were circles of electric candles and a replica of the framed (miraculous) icon of Our Lady of Kazan.

The beauty of that small log cabin church far surpassed anything in the great white Pavilion monolith with its cold and empty Chapel of the Good Shepard.

It was then that I asked myself: What is this thing called Orthodoxy? Growing up, I was taught by the nuns that only Catholics had the true sacrament, the actual Body and Blood of Christ or the Real Presence; Catholics were the only ones with saints, the Mass, priests, and churches that looked like real holy places.

Orthodoxy, I found, also had the Mass (the Divine Liturgy), canonized saints, monks, nuns, priests, vestments, miters—everything in fact that Catholicism had, even miracle stories, bleeding and myrrh streaming images, as well as visions of the Virgin Mary.

This was confusing stuff for a committed, 12-year old Catholic. If there is only one true Church, why would the Virgin Mary make alleged appearances over the dome of a Coptic Orthodox church in Zeitoun, Egypt in front of hundreds of thousands of people? These series of apparitions, lasting from 1968 to 1971, spontaneously healed many people who witnessed the lady in light move around the dome of the church. Why would the bodies of some Orthodox saints remain incorrupt in the same manner as Saint Catherine Laboure’s body in Paris? For every Catholic saint or miracle story there is an Orthodox counterpart.

Is the Orthodox Church the true “other” lung of the whole Church, and not the schismatic renegades they’re made out to be by some Catholic traditionalists? In the eyes of God, where the divide and conquer nature of human politics does not exist – to the chagrin of strict doctrinaire prelates, both East and West, steeped in charges of heresy or schism – are both Churches already really one and united “under the skin” despite the lack of an official agreement?

As the abbot of St. Tikhon’s monastery near Scranton told me last year:

“It was the Western, or Catholic Church, that began changing everything.”

These changes not only included the Flioque clause in the Nicene Creed but the way Christians crossed themselves. The original method of crossing oneself was the Orthodox way, right to left, but Rome changed it from left to right in the 8th century.

A change like this seems a small thing but it can also be indicative of something deeper, like a tendency to re-invent and denude until centuries later you get something like the Second Vatican Council, where the changes were so drastic that if a Catholic from 1947 could come back he wouldn’t even recognize today’s Catholic Mass as being Catholic.

When former Byzantine Catholic Hieromonk and theologian Fr. Gabriel Bunge converted to the Orthodox Church, it generated a lot of press. (Conversions work both ways and can be a lot like musical chairs: In 2009, Orthodox theologian and writer John Mack converted to Eastern Catholicism although shortly after this he divorced his wife and left the priesthood).

On his conversion to Orthodoxy, Fr. Bunge said:

“…Many people thought that the two Churches were moving towards each other and would eventually meet at one point. But as I was growing older and learning some things deeper, I stopped believing in the possibility of the reconciliation of two Churches in terms of the divine services and institutional unity. What was I to do? I could only go on searching for this unity on my own, individually, restoring it in one separate soul, mine. I could not do more. I just followed my conscience, and came to Orthodoxy.”

I see the wisdom in this statement, especially since my conversion to Orthodoxy on April 8th of this year. Prior to my first communion at an Orthodox parish in Northern Liberties, I had many conversations with members of the congregation in which more than several freely admitted that they often attend Catholic churches when they are away on vacation and when they cannot find an Orthodox church.

Not only do they attend Catholic churches but they receive communion in these churches, a fact which may be frowned upon by their pastor or bishop but a fact nevertheless. The Orthodox people I spoke with felt they could relate to Catholics because Catholics believe in the Real Presence. “It’s all about the Eucharist,” as one Orthodox lady told me.

“This is why I come to church, to receive the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not a symbol or a memorial, it is real.”

Comments like these bypass the usual East-West schism rhetoric having to do with the Filioque, or questions related to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. It’s not that many or most Orthodox don’t think that these questions are important; many do. But for the ordinary people in the pews, ie. people who are not theologians, priests or monks, it is the Eucharist that stands out as the centerpiece of spiritual life. So yes, a certain strange unity of the heart between the two churches has already taken place.

I came to Orthodoxy from Catholicism partially because of its unchanged liturgy; because the Orthodox Church, in its wisdom, never embarked on a path of liturgical self-destruction. It was not enough for me to attend the Traditional Catholic Latin Mass once a month when the bulk of the Catholic Church remains in the Novus Ordo camp. Even while attending the TLM at beautiful Saint Paul’s church in South Philadelphia, one could not escape the reality that this Mass was a minority Mass, primarily a footnote to the Novus Ordo.

It pained me to realize that the TLM was seen more as a specialized event and not part of the regular lists of masses in most Catholic churches.

In the Orthodox Church there is always the traditional liturgy; the rubrics never wax or wane depending on the latest liturgical fashion. There’s no need for committees to advertise or promote tradition.Tradition is already there, and it’s not going anywhere. It is, as they say, the Church.

Since becoming Orthodox, gone are the endless personal narratives that would run in my head whenever I’d attend either a TLM or the Novus Ordo. Those narratives concentrated on what had been lost or thrown away.

In the Orthodox Church, tradition is not shuffled in and shuffled out, like a road show trekking onto Buffalo.



  1. Constance Thomson says:

    Greetings in His Most Holy Name!
    I notice that there is evidence of a split (1940s) in the Orthodox Church in my area. I did a little research online and became aware of the OCA and the ROCOR.
    Personally, I converted to RC at age 40 (12 years ago) from Protestantism (in it’s many forms). Once Catholic, I quickly turned to “Tradition” once I figured out the whole Vatican II protestantism in the RC Church. Presently, I have run out of rope in the area of the Latin Tradition.
    So, in short, the whole idea of trying to figure out the most recent breach in Orthodoxy is nauseating to say the least!
    I have sniffed out the Catholic Byzantine Church and I found the Vatican II modernism has poisoned their worship despite the use of the Divine Liturgy.
    Truthfully, the little bit I am able to learn about Vladimir Putin and his apparent faith and desire to lead his country in Christian Orthodoxy has me yearning to know more about that particular faith.
    Perhaps my own filial Russian ancestry also plays a part, but we have been 4 generations in Canada and my personal faith was always a nuisance to my parents and grandparents. I do feel a bit of an orphan!
    Thank you in advance for any assistance

  2. Fr. John says:

    Constance, you’re not alone. You can write us at frjohn (at) journeytoorthodoxy (dot) com and we can answer your questions as best we can.

    It’s a well worn path, and you’ll be one of thousands on this journey at this moment. We’re here to help.

  3. Anne Dunphy says:

    For reasons I cannot explain, I think more and more about the Orthodox Church. I was raised Roman Catholic and still continue to attend the Catholic church, but there has been a tugging of my heart in this direction, particularly in the last few years. Truth is very important to me, and it is constantly on my mind. I have always believed that the RC and Orthodox churches were the only ones with apostolic succession. Where and how do I start this journey?

  4. Fr. John says:

    Anne, check your email.

  5. Catholic but questioning says:

    I find myself drawn to Orthodox Church. I am a life-long Catholic who has been interested in the Latin Mass community in my area. The more I study about Orthodoxy, the more I am intrigued.

  6. It’s a long line. Write us, and we’ll help as much as we can.

  7. Christine Sanchez says:

    Dear Fr. John,
    I was raised Roman Catholic and I received a Catholic education. I remember mass as a child in latin, and I was a little disappointed when it was changed into English. I loved the ceremony of the latin mass. It just doesn’t feel the same. There have been so many changes in the Roman Catholic church that I don’t feel comfortable with it any longer. Further research led me to Orthodoxy and I was very interested to learn that the teachings have not changed since the beginning, and I would like to learn more. I am getting on in years and I pray for Our Lord to lead me in the right direction. I am very confused. I would like to know how I can convert to Orthodoxy, which is still part of the Catholic church. I live in Central Florida and I don’t know of any churches in my area, is there any list of parishes I can check out? I would be very grateful if you could give me some advice. Thank you so much for your valuable time

  8. Christine,

    Happy Feast! We do indeed know of many Churches in your area, but we need to narrow it down. Can you use our CONTACT FORM to let us know what city you live in? Then we will connect you with some flesh-and-blood Orthodox clergy and people right near you.

  9. Ryan Dape says:

    I’m a 20 year old Theology student from the Philippines. I was born and raised a Catholic I discovered Orthodoxy when I was 15. I made my research and now that I am 20 I am ready to be converted. However the Only Orthodox Church here is 6-7 hours drive from where I live. Do you have any suggestions?

  10. Fr. John says:

    Ryan, let’s get you in touch with the mission there and introduce you to the priest. He will guide you through the process and help you start a local mission. We will help in any way we can, so let’s stay in touch.

  11. Constance says:

    Two of my adult friends (English speaking) were Chrismated last week in a Greek Church. Many among them commented that they had never seen an adult Chrismation. Worst yet, they weren’t ashamed or saddened by this. Very tragic state of this Church (in Canada).

  12. Fr. John says:


    Don’t give up hope. The Holy Spirit will make up what’s lacking.

  13. This is fascinating! I too feel like I’m on a journey towards the Orthodox Church. Currently, I’m Catholic and I’ve tried the Novus Ordo but that liturgy is so watered down that I feel it’s a detriment to me. I’ve been to the TLM but I just can’t handle the juridical view of everything. I’ve also tried the Byzantine Churches but I can’t do it either. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of historical research and it’s opening my eyes to the reality of what the Fathers really taught. I just have so many questions. How can I begin this journey?

  14. Fr. John says:

    Jorge, check your email. We’ve reached out to you to begin the process!

  15. Stephen Nelson says:

    I am a long-time Protestant who thought I had found “home” about 2 months ago, after being exposed to “the journey home” on EWTN. I fell in love with the Catholic church for a whole month- and then I learned about the Novus Order. I found it so strange that the Priest had to leave just before the Eucharist to get the wafers from a side chapel where the altar was!? And I wondered why this very large auditorium looked so “Protestant” and not like the ornate Catholic churches I had visited in Quebec while on vacation with family when young. I knew that being in Japan would mean that there was no traditional Latin mass available. Somehow I came across a Youtube talking about how God was going to use Putin/Russia/Orthodoxy to bring a restored faith back to the earth! What is this about? Then after a bit of study, I learned that Rome is the one who “went their own way” and that side of the church has been busy dividing ever since! I have found a local Orthodox group that meets in my city once a month- and the next time I can go is in July! Can’t wait! I am grateful for my month as a “Catholic” for teaching me about honouring Mary, but I am so relieved that I don’t have to deal with apostate popes! At first, I felt that in being from an English background, my roots have no connection with the Eastern Church! Then the Holy Spirit reminded me, “What did your parents often call you as a child?” Of course! “Stephanos!!” I am coming home! 🙂

  16. Fr. John says:

    Welcome home, Stephen. Let us know how we can help!

  17. Stephen Nelson says:

    Thank you Fr. John!
    I suppose the one of the first things I need to do is study. What are “must have” books for my library? What English Bible do you recommend?
    Would you happen to know which form of Orthodox the Japanese churches are a part of?

  18. Fr. John says:

    The Japanese Orthodox Church is an autonomous church in the Russian tradition as they were evangelized by the Church of Russia.

    As far an English Bibles go, get yourself an Orthodox Study Bible. There is also an excellent Bible Survey for the Orthodox Study Bible called “Called To Serve” you can get also.

    I’ll send you an email shortly with a short list of books that are good for beginners and that will be most useful to you.

  19. Sanu Cherian says:

    Dear Fr.
    The concept of original sin is unique to Roman catholism. When was this conceived who was responsible for coming up with this idea? I believe the Orthodox do not believe in this concept of original sin. Why is this? Your response will be highly appreciated.

  20. Fr. John says:

    Actually, though we define it differently and often call it “Ancestral Sin”, Original Sin is an Orthodox theological concept. These links might help enlighten the topic:

    Ancestral Sin vs Original Sin

    On Ancstral Sin by St. Theodoret of Cyrus

    East West – Fundamental Differences, Part One, Part Two

  21. Thank you Father. That was indeed very helpful. Those links provide a very thorough read. So, it seems that Augustines mistranslation of the Greek word ‘ephho ‘ is what caused the west(RC) to misinterpret the concept of Adams sin? What a catastrophic error! This error has ultimately lead to such a big rift between Orthodoxy & Roman Catholism. It seems this wrong interpretation of original sin is ultimately what led Thomas Aquinas to invent the concept of immaculate conception of the mother of God. Another fatal error causing yet another reason for a schism! According to the Orthodox fathers, what was passed onto humanity is the consequence of Adams sin which mainly is death. Not the actual sin i.e. humanilty is not born with sin just because he/she is a descendant of Adam. As humans we can choose to sin or not to sin, just as Adam & Eve had this same choice. The mother of God chose not to sin during her life & hence she was worthy of bearing the son of God. She didn’t need to be immaculately conceived. She was born like any of us but yet she was not like any of us as she chose not to ever sin. Am I right so far with this interpretation?

    This leads me to another question:
    If the mother of God was born with the consequence of Adams sin(ancestral sin) i.e. Death, DID SHE DIE? The Roman Catholic belief is that she didn’t die but was taken upto heaven. What is the orthodox belief regarding this?

    Thank you for taking time to reply.

    God bless

  22. Fr. John says:

    Of course she died. That’s what ‘falling asleep’ means in the Bible – remember the feast is called “Dormition” in Orthodoxy. To discover what we believe about that feast, all you need to do is either attend the Dormition services this August (you will hear it all in the hymnography) or read it from the Festal Menaion.

    We don’t have to go through the logical contortions that the RC does about Mary, creating solutions to problems that don’t exist. Mary died just like we all will.

    She’s not the Great Exception, she’s the Great Example.

  23. kimzef2015 says:

    Hi. I’ve gone through a lot of religions. Grew up S Baptist in the South memorizing scripture. Then a slew of different Prot churches as an adult (often as pianist/organist jobs.). Then after watching the Journey Home on EWTN, I converted to Catholicism and was later even a guest on an EWTN show about women who’ve regret their abortions. Becoming increasingly disillusioned with “pope” Francis, I began attending a sedevacantist traditional LatinMass chapel that was beautiful but it seemed like they were making up rigid rules about how to live like no women in pants–EVER no natural family planning –EVER, no TV –EVER, etc.

    Then a bunch of online sedevacantists told me I should try an Eastern rite Catholic Church. Most sedevacantists believe that the new ordination and bishop consecration rites of Vat 2 are invalid and so most of the priests of the Novus Ordo are invalid. They believe most Eastern rite priests and patriarchs to be valid since Vat 2 didn’t mess with their sacraments and they go there despite the Masses being in union w Francis. I believe they are probably correct about the invalidity of the new Novus Ordo priests and bishops due to the way Paul VI mangled up the sacraments.

    So I’ve been going to a Byz rite Catholic Church and loving it so much except for the part where we have to pray for the pope whom I don’t believe in anymore. But I fell in love with this ancient Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

    There is a Serbian Orthodox Church close to me and I am drawn to trying it, but I am clearly not Serbian and am afraid it’s there more to serve the Serbian community of the Seattle area. Do you think they would be open to a non-Serbian newcomer sitting in the back row on Sunday? I feel so worn out with religious searches.This will probably be my last stop.

    Thank you for your answer.

  24. Kimzef, yes, but I also think that a parish with many converts already is the place to start. I’m going to email you, and see if we can help connect you with local Orthodox Christians and clergy. Don’t worry. There are many around you. Welcome home.

  25. Scott FORESMAN says:

    I was an Episcopal priest for nearly 30 years. Converted to the Catholic faith in 2013. How distressing to discover that the same liberalism that infected the Episcopal church is also in the Catholic Church. I could say more, but suffice to say I’ve begun attending a local Orthodox parish. At age 63, I do believe I’m FINALLY home.

  26. Fr Scott, please check your email.

  27. David E. Rockett says:

    Wonderful Fr. Scott…welcome home at last. It is curious why God allows us to linger for decades in heterodox communions before finding the true Faith. I had not the slightest care or interest in Orthodoxy…until weeks after my 57th birthday. Twice a Ref. Elder I read and argued with my young Orthodox friends who’d chided me gently for six months before I began to think, “This might be true!”…only to be received into The Church by Chrismation Holy Sat almost 4-yrs later. Countless other stories recount similar “delays” far past our physical prime, and our families grown and remain in heterodox communions. There’s a reason for this ‘later-age’ phenom that escapes me. Of course, God is merciful and in all His works…and I know you will be increasingly thrilled to have found The Church, imperfect as She is, at last. Lord have mercy.

  28. I have been RC since I was 9. I am in my 50’s now and have seen so much change since then that I am not sure I am in the right church. People treat the church like a community hall….no respect for people praying and meditating. Even the church itself does look more and more like a Protestant church or just a space with a crucifix in it. I have a friend in the RO church and we have talked in the past. I have considered the move in order to regain a deeper spiritual connection that I seem to have lost in the Roman Church.

  29. Stephen, if you have perused the section on Catholics who have converted to Orthodoxy, you will see that they are an impressive bunch. In my own priesthood, they have told me things like “In order for me to remain Catholic, I must become Orthodox,” and “This is the Church I thought I belonged to.” j

    It’s a well worn path. Do let us know if we can help you out. You’re not alone.

  30. I have been attending devine liturgy at a local Greek Orthodox church for several months now and loving the highly organized ritual reminiscent of the masses and nun’s teachings from my RC youth. I’ve even attended — and fully participated in — an informational day at the church intended for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. I’ve been made to feel very welcome and feel comfortable in this special community in all aspects except one. I’m gay. I’m at an age where the descriptor of gay refers more to who I am than what I do … and it took me a long time to understand and accept that being gay is really not about sex despite what many think. And that’s not going to change. I finally accept myself, and that is a foundation for me. Something I didn’t have in my younger days, consequently holding me back from making choices appropriate to me and my circumstances. But I have to ask, would the Orthodox accept me if they knew sexual orientation? My own church has been hypocritical about the subject. Would I get better treatment from ‘the other lung’ of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church?

  31. John, we aren’t the ‘other lung’ of the Church, we ARE the Church. As for the treatment you may get – who can tell, but I can tell you this – unless you’re willing to live our way of life, and that means sacrifice and chastity, you won’t be happy. You can’t become Orthodox because you think it is the ‘best’ choice. You can only become Orthodox when you realize that it is the ONLY choice.

    I strongly recommend you speak to your local Orthodox priest if you haven’t already, and decide whether or not you wish to be one of us. That much is up to you, but, and I mean this in the kindest, most generous way, our way of life is not easy. Orthodox Christians aren’t perfect, but we strive to overcome our passions. That is the Orthodox way, but it is not a comfortable way.

    If, however, you want to save your soul, welcome home.

  32. John Pelican says:

    I was more than disenchanted with the RC Church after V-2. I was fortunate to have served Holy Mass as a young boy and like most young Catholic boys I suppose considered a vocation. Liturgical abuses notwithstanding what I have witnessed since that time has saddened me. I also mention even as a youngster I felt something really amiss with the Sacrificial nature of the Mass. I felt it. I have a very dear friend who is a Hieromonk who was formerly (years ago0 a seminarian in a Catholic Seminary. He converted and has been answering my questions now for several years. Initially I knew being disenchanted with the direction RC was going was not the reason to go East but as of recent the more I read, study, and pray I find myself being drawn to the East. Make no mistake, I am very disappointed in what is coming out of Rome. would appreciate some/any encouragement. Pax tecum

  33. John, let me start by encouraging you – you are not alone, and we are here to make it easier for you to progress and get back some of your hope. There’s no perfect church, but there is THE Church, and we await you! Let us know how we can help.

  34. I am a Catholic that has been converting for 20 years! Starting when I was a young man, I spent many weeks in Orthodox monasteries. I then went back and forth from TLM to Orthodox for years, not sure of what to do, and turned off by the phyletism. Now, I want eagerly to convert to Orthodoxy, but all the local Churches serve non-English liturgies. And the one OCA church that does serve in English, the Priest seems checked out – I can never get a meeting with him. Why is converting so intensely difficult? I give up and go back to Catholic church, get sick, and go to an Orthodox liturgy I can’t understand. Rinse, repeat. It’s a terrible ordeal! Any advice Father John?!

  35. “Our best suggestion is to visit a local Orthodox parish, get to know the local priest,”

    But what if they don’t want to be known? They are not all Father Johns! No, not quite!

  36. KJ, check your email and let’s set up a time to talk by phone (if you don’t mind). Converting IS intensely difficult precisely because God puts these obstacles before us as a test. Not so we can fail and be punished, but so that we can succeed and be rewarded with a crown.

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