Not many people get the opportunity to attend seminary. In an amazing way I have attended two. The first was training for the Roman Catholic priesthood in Ireland and the second at a conservative Evangelical seminary in England.
Raised a Catholic . . . but not knowing God
Like most boys in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s, I was brought up a Roman Catholic. My parents taught me to live a good life, say my prayers, and attend mass every Sunday. I believed there was a God, but I didn't know him personally. I prayed as my mother taught me, but I never knew whether or not God was really listening. I attended confession monthly and did many penances. Conscious of my sinfulness, I hoped that God would accept me into heaven if I did enough good works. I tried to live the best life I could. It was like balancing the accounts, hoping that my credits (good works) would cancel my debits (sins). Zealous to please God, I was just eleven years old when I decided to become a Roman Catholic priest. I told the local priest, but he said I would have to wait until I was eighteen before I could enter the seminary.
During my teenage years I got involved in much sinful behaviour. I rebelled against God and disobeyed his commandments. I loved my sin, but I hated that miserable life and started to cry out to God. I realise now that God was working in my heart. He showed me I was a sinner. I longed to be right with him. This became the focus of my life. I knew that I needed to be saved from my sins. I went on a pilgrimage to a famous Roman Catholic shrine. I ate oatcakes, drank black tea, and crawled on my knees around the Stations of the Cross over three days to do penance for my sins. I fasted and meditated but never knew pardon for sin. I wanted to know forgiveness, but how?
Training for the priesthood
At the age of nineteen, and after checking different possible organisations, I finally decided to join the Society of Missions to Africa (SMA). They are a society of priests who live together in small communities in different parts of the world, seeking to convert pagans to the Roman religion. I entered the Roman Catholic Seminary located in Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland. During my two years at seminary, I learned about religion and philosophy but there were no biblical studies. I attended daily mass and monthly confession but, alas, there was no teaching on forgiveness for sin. We had set times of prayer as a community - morning, evening, and night. I heard many talks that were focused on pleasing God by doing charitable works and buying favour with God through the church. I also heard a lot about how to use psychology to counsel people spiritually. Not once did I hear how to be reconciled to God through Christ who alone could forgive my sins.
I began to read the Bible (a Protestant translation my parents had given to me). As I read it, I asked the priests serious questions about the religious rituals in the Roman Catholic faith, but they couldn't show me any scriptural basis whatsoever for so much of their superstition and their many traditions. I discovered that the Bible does not promote the veneration of Mary as practiced in the Roman Catholic Church. The official teaching of the Roman Church is that Mary does not necessarily answer prayers but rather intercedes on the Catholic's behalf and prays for them. However, the Bible teaches that she is a sinner: in the famous 'Magnificat' she is found praying to God her Saviour. Mary knew she had sinned and we find her rejoicing in God her Saviour, the one conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit - Jesus Christ her Lord.
I realised that rosaries and prayers to the saints have no scriptural basis. Mary is addressed in Roman Catholic prayers (eg 'O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee'), but the Saviour teaches us to pray to the Father directly. Indeed, the Bible warns us against ritualistic prayer. This described me exactly: outwardly very holy and pious, but inwardly my heart was sinful and corrupt. Also, the Roman Church teaches its followers to pray to the saints. There is a saint for almost every circumstance, such as St Christopher for travel, St Anthony for lost property, St Martin de Porres for healing, St Joseph for the dying, St Vincent de Paul for the poor, and St Jude for lost causes. Unable to find anything in Scripture to support these things, I asked the priests many questions, and I was told that these Church traditions could not be questioned.
I was conscious of my sin and longed to have assurance of salvation. I asked the priests but I was told that we could never be sure of salvation until we died. I was instructed to attend the priest for confession, but I did not find that in Scripture either. The Bible instructs us to confess our sins to God, not to human priests. I also realised that as a priest I would have to hear people's confessions and absolve them. I was confused. How could I forgive other people's sins, when I did not even know forgiveness myself? I now realise that the Lord was lifting the veil from my eyes to show me that true faith and forgiveness for sin is to be found in Christ alone.
Eventually, I left the Roman seminary in 1995. The Society had decided that I was not suitable, but the Lord, through his Word, had shown me the errors of Rome and that I shouldn't continue training for the priesthood. I had entered the seminary thinking that I would find God's answer to my sins. When I left, I thought that I had finished with God - but he hadn't finished with me! Over the next two years I lived in Dublin and continued my search for God. I went to various Protestant churches and also met people from different cults. One cult told me that if I was to be baptized again, then I would be born again. This sounded too much like the Roman Church and its teaching of justification by works, so I had nothing more to do with them.
Going to England
I went to London in preparation for nursing studies. On the first night I met a man who told me how I could know forgiveness for sin. He gave me a leaflet that emphasized the need to trust in Jesus Christ alone. I read this leaflet many times, but still had no peace with God. Although well physically, I became very depressed spiritually.
I knew that I was condemned if I was not converted. The Bible told me that if I did not believe then the wrath of God abode upon me. Then I read 'There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit' (Rom. 8:1). This was a constant challenge to me. I was alone in a huge city with no one to turn to for spiritual help. How my heart yearned to be right with God.
While pursuing my nursing studies, I met some students who seemed to know God. I attended their church where the Bible was central to the whole service. The sermon was preached from the Bible - that was something completely new to me. Deep down I knew these people were genuine Christians. I asked many questions and started to attend the church regularly. About this time, a small Christian group was meeting in my halls of residence. I went along aiming to disrupt the meetings, but slowly began to be drawn to Christ. I saw that they had something that I didn't have - peace with God and a real love for Christ. They knew the reality of 'Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom. 5:1). One of them gave me J. I. Packer's book, Knowing God. I read the book and saw that I too could know God in a personal way.
One Sunday morning, 8th February 1998, I was listening to a sermon from Luke 10:30-37 about the Good Samaritan. The preacher spoke of Jesus Christ being like the Good Samaritan - coming to help us in our wretched sinful state - while revealing that the Holy Spirit gives new life to lost sinners. He also urged the listeners to repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness. I called upon Jesus Christ to save me, 'For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved' (Rom. 10:13). There and then, I knelt down in my room and prayed, 'O God, I know that you have sent your Son Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners. Will you save me? I trust in Christ alone and ask that you would come into my life by the power of your Holy Spirit and make me new.' I felt a huge weight of guilt and sin taken from my heart. As soon as I opened my eyes a deep sense of peace came over me. At that moment I knew that I was a Christian and truly forgiven of all my sins. The Bible became the living Word of God and he was speaking to me as I read. I realised that we are not saved by works but by grace, 'For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast' (Eph. 2:8,9). I was baptised in London as a believer in September 1998. After my baptism I struggled with temptations and trials, but the Lord was my constant refuge: 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble'(Psa. 46:1).
My life as a Christian
On my first visit back to Ireland, I did not know of a Christian church, so I went to mass with my parents. I realised the priest was re-enacting a sacrifice that was accomplished once and for all on the cross of Calvary (Heb. 9:26; 1 Pet. 3:18). For this reason, I couldn't attend the Roman Catholic mass any longer. As a young Irish man, swearing was second nature to me. Very soon after my conversion this dried up. Worldly pursuits like drinking in pubs and going to nightclubs ceased. Prayer and communion with God became a whole new area of experience. I had learned formal rote prayer as a young boy, but now I began truly to pray from my heart. This is still an amazing experience to me: to be able to lift my heart to God as my Father and know that he is listening and will answer my prayers according to his will.
My family were upset that I had left the Roman Catholic faith. At first they thought it was another religious phase I was going through, but they soon realised that this was different. However, the Lord gave me opportunities to share the true gospel with them. About a year later my youngest brother was converted. What joy filled my heart!
Since my conversion, the Lord has taught me so much from his Word. I am especially thankful to one man from the church in London who helped me to study the Bible. We did a complete overview of the Scriptures together, as well as an in-depth study of the doctrines of grace (Calvinism). The glorious truth that God is sovereign in salvation and reaches out in mercy to sinners is truly humbling and amazing. That God, the Creator and Sustainer of the world, should call wretched sinners to himself illustrates his grace. What a joyful day it will be when all his people are united with him in heaven.
Christian service and ministry
About a year after my conversion I was seeking the Lord about serving him. One Lord's Day evening after the service I was praying to the Lord asking him where he wanted me to serve. I read 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5 and was profoundly challenged. I had never studied this portion of God's Word before. It was impressed on me that this was how the Lord wanted me to serve him - to preach the Word. I graduated and worked for a year in the National Treatment Centre for Alcohol and Drugs. Some of the patients were hardened criminals; others were involved in sordid areas of society due to their addictions. I realised the psychological treatment was not dealing with their real problem: their unpardoned sin. I couldn't witness openly to the patients but some enquired what kept me through the difficult times in my life. I told them that it was my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and they were amazed. Both my housemate and a Roman Catholic friend were converted and baptised during this time. It was a great privilege to see the Lord use even me to win sinners to Christ. I conducted a Bible Study in Colossians with some Jehovah's Witnesses. They began to seek Christ but their leaders visited and put an end to it. I pray for these people, that the Lord would open their eyes to his truth. As I taught young boys in a Crusaders Class I soon realized that children can be taught the deep truths of Scripture in a simple, understandable way.
The Lord opened up the way for me to study at London Theological Seminary. The lasting memories of my time there are of the nightly prayer meetings with fellow students and the godly men who taught us theology and prepared us for the ministry.
Gearoid Marley is the PTS Wickliffe Preacher for the East of England. His testimony was printed in Protestant Truth, November-December 2011, and is reproduced here by permission. You can read the testimonies of fifty Roman Catholic priests who came into the light of the gospel of Christ in Far from Rome, Near to God, published by the Trust.