Saints We Love

Monday, October 8, 2012

CONVERTS by Mike Aquilina

Mike Aquilina

This Easter, in my diocese, more than 1,200 adults will come into full communion with the Catholic Church. That's just the little Diocese of Pittsburgh. Across the state of Pennsylvania, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will welcome another 1,200.

And those are just two of the eight dioceses in my state, two of the almost 200 in the United States and its territories. There are no clear numbers on how many adult converts will enter the Church this year, but I can only guess that the number is quite high -- as it has been for many years.

We cradle Catholics grouse and grumble about our parishes' homilies, the music and Father so-and-so's new mustache. We wring our hands because schools are closing and because a family down the block became Protestant after a messy divorce. Yet, somehow, the Church continues to attract good men and women by the thousands and even tens of thousands.

Every year, I'm startled by the photo on the front page of our diocesan paper. There's my bishop, beaming, surrounded in a cathedral sanctuary teeming with smiling catechumens, candidates and their sponsors. Philadelphia's paper ran a similar photo this year.

Yet, in those crowd shots, we can lose sight of an important fact: that every conversion is a miracle, an act of grace that is inexplicable, no matter how many times a convert tells his story. For every person who steps forward this Easter, there are many others who stop in the Church's vestibule, awaiting the grace of the next step.

And every conversion is unique. Though most converts these days take instruction in classes, the experience itself is profoundly personal, individual and unique. Said G.K. Chesterton, himself a convert from Unitarianism via Anglicanism: "The Church is a house with a hundred gates: and no two men enter at exactly the same angle."

For Dorothy Rifas, age 101, of New York City, the grace came just this year. Born into a Jewish family, she was baptized a Catholic in January, at the Catholic nursing home where she's lived since 1998.

For others, conversion seems to arrive suddenly. My wife Terri's announcement came as a complete surprise to me, though I'd been married to her for five years. Years later, she could identify stages along the way to the Catholic Church -- influential books and people, conversations and world events. But the decisive moment, the conversion, fell as quietly from the heavens -- and as suddenly -- as Pennsylvania snow.

• • • • •

Back in the 1920s, the British essayist Hillaire Belloc opined that cradle Catholics should never be allowed to write about conversion. A pagan was better suited for the task, he said. And perhaps he was right.

A born Catholic, even one who returns to the faith after some time away, still comes back to a familiar home. We can't underestimate the lingering effects of the graces we received in childhood Communions and Confessions. We can't discount the images of liturgy, the sounds of prayer, that we took in with mother's milk. A lapsed Catholic comes home to a place that part of him could never leave.

To become Catholic is never a small matter. In his book "The Catholic Church and Conversion," Chesterton points out that the Church is something formidable. Once you've looked into it, you might be repelled by it, you might despise it, you might fall in love with it. But you cannot remain indifferent to it. For the Church's claims are absolute and, to the uninitiated, outlandish. It is the one true Church, outside of which there is no salvation. Its pope is the vicar of Christ; that is, he stands in the place of Jesus Christ on earth. The Church teaches infallibly in matters of faith and morals. The Church bows in adoration, worshiping as God what seems to be a piece of bread. The Church repents the sins of its members, even as it claims itself to be sinless and perfect.

To say "I believe" before any of these statements requires a profound act of faith. To say "I believe" before all of these statements requires a radical change of life. Thus, we call it "conversion" -- literally, "turning around."

That sort of change can be frightening. Chesterton describes a period of "intense nervousness, to say the least" that threatens to overwhelm the typical convert. For conversion demands a sacrifice: out with the old, in with the new; the abandonment of comfortable ways and familiar worship; the alienation of family and friends.

Yet the promise of change can be a magnet of attraction as well.

I know of one man who, before his conversion, was somewhat famous for his blueblood racism. A year after entering the Catholic Church, however, he spoke casually about how much he enjoyed the cultural diversity of his parish, which included families rich and poor, white, black, Hispanic and Vietnamese. He never mentioned his "conversion" from racism. Perhaps he never noticed it. But it was as real and as obvious as the Gulf of Mexico.

His friends noticed the change, and several followed him into the fold. Whatever the Catholic Church had, they concluded it must have been powerful to change this man; and they wanted a piece of it.

History shows a multitude who received definitive healing upon conversion. St. Augustine of Hippo, somewhat randy in his youth, was by all accounts a faithful and chaste celibate after embracing Christianity.

Of course, not everyone receives the change they seek. Some come to conversion hoping for a miraculous healing of a moral or even physical infirmity. Yet the granddaddy of all converts, St. Paul, received no such consolation. We don't know what his trouble was; he spoke of it only as "a thorn . . . in the flesh, a messenger of Satan" that harassed him (2 Cor 12:7). Again and again, Paul asked God to remove the problem. The Lord responded, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Not every convert is healed; but every convert will receive grace enough to carry the day. Corresponding to the grace, though, is up to the individual. Augustine succeeded in his struggle against impurity. Yet some famous modern pilgrims appear to have failed. Perhaps this century's most famous convert, Thomas Merton, had had a problem with love affairs when he was a young communist, and neither baptism nor 20 years in a monastery seem to have cured him of his weakness. Both the British artist Eric Gill and the novelist Graham Greene were unable or unwilling to check their sexual perversions at the door of the Church. Still, it's a testimony to both, and to the power of the Catholic faith, that they were unwilling to go elsewhere.

• • • • •

The convert's faith can be dogged, zealous. It can annoy pew potatoes who were born Catholic. It can shame us who grew up in Catholic homes.

U.S. Representative Clare Boothe Luce was known, in the years after her conversion, to overwhelm potential converts with her exuberant apologetics. And Mrs. Luce defined "potential convert" rather broadly. One tall tale purports to recount her first private audience with Pope Pius XII. The two were sequestered in the Pope's quarters for an unusually long time. Concerned, Pope Pius' assistants opened the door a crack, just to check in. They saw (so the story goes) His Holiness backed into a corner by his guest, protesting, "But, Mrs. Luce, I'm already a Roman Catholic!"

Surely an apocryphal story, but true in the sense that it conveys the zeal of a convert's faith. In 1926, Belloc wrote: "Such men and women converts are perhaps the chief factor in the increasing vigor of the Catholic Church in our time." That's still true in 1999. A convert from Judaism, Jean-Marie Lustiger is cardinal archbishop of Paris. Another convert (from animism), Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, is frequently mentioned among the more likely candidates for the papacy.

Stateside, the conversion rolls include a remarkable number of clergy and intellectuals: psychologist Paul Vitz, former Marxist Dale Vree, former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, essayist Annie Dillard, journalist Robert Novak, philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, former Lutheran pastors Richard John Neuhaus and Louis Bouyer, historian Thomas Reeves, authors Russell Kirk, John Haas, Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft and Ronda Chervin.

Once a Protestant minister, Steve Wood is now founder of the fast-growing men's movement, St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers. In the 1970s, John Michael Talbot went from rocker to "Jesus freak" to friar, and he continues to produce consistently moving and best-selling Christian music. Another Protestant minister, Marcus Grodi, now hosts a weekly television show that focuses exclusively on conversion stories; his Coming Home Network offers resources to help folks materially, intellectually and spiritually on their journey homeward. Former evangelical Dan O'Neill has founded Mercy Corps, which provides remarkably effective mission help to the poor in developing nations. A noted seminary rector recently remarked that the single most decisive influence on young Catholic seminarians in recent years has been the biblical scholarship of Scott Hahn, a convert from Calvinism.

Look back just a little bit further, and you'll find that many of the leading lights of this century were converts to the Catholic faith: poets Robert Fitzgerald, Allen Tate, Wallace Stevens, Edith Sitwell, Alfred Noyes, Roy Campbell; novelists Evelyn Waugh, Caroline Gordon, J.F. Powers, Shusako Endo, Julien Green, Heinrich Boll; activists Dorothy Day, John Howard Griffin, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, John Cort; philosophers Henri Bergson and Jacques Maritain; commentator Malcolm Muggeridge; literary critic Wallace Fowlie; sociologist Christopher Dawson; media sage Marshall McLuhan; psychiatrists Karl Stern and Gregory Zilboorg; actors John Wayne and Sir Alec Guinness; composers Erik Satie, Marylou Williams and Dave Brubeck; singer Maria von Trapp; playwright Oscar Wilde; historian Will Durant; journalist Heywood Broun, .

Converts such as these -- and millions more who are anonymous -- make up a goodly portion of our supernatural family, our Communion of Saints. Together with us, they make our Church a welcoming home for still more others. Catholicism is an instant family -- not always a functional family. But it's something real. Filmmaker Jean Cocteau wrote of the moment of his conversion: "Thus I learned of the spirit of this family, which Faith brings to us instantaneously, and which is not one of the least of the graces of God."

It's home. And, once a convert's arrived there, the homecoming seemed inevitable. Asked why he'd become Catholic (of all things!), the great American novelist Walker Percy replied, "What else is there?"

8 Resources for Pilgrims on the Way
(And the Catholics Who Love Them)

"Spiritual Journeys: Twenty-Seven Personal Experiences," edited by Robert Baram, Pauline Books & Media: 1-800-876-4463. Great stories, including those of Vitz, Kreeft, Haas and Howard.

"Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic," edited by Patrick Madrid, Basilica Press: 1-800-553-6869.

"The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories," edited by Dan O'Neill, Crossroad: 1-800-395-0690. Includes Cort, Vree, Talbot and O'Neill.

"The Catholic Church and Conversion," by G.K. Chesterton, in vol. 3 of GKC's collected works, Ignatius Press: 1-800-651-1531.

"Protestant Minister Becomes Catholic" and other audio and video tapes by Scott Hahn, Ph.D. Available from St. Joseph Communications: 1-800-526-2151.

The Coming Home Network, a support organization for converts, produces a helpful newsletter, TV show and retreats: 1-800-664-5110;

"By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition," by Mark Shea, Our Sunday Visitor: 1-800-348-2440.

An array of conversion testimonies are available, in various media, from Catholic Answers:, or call 1-888-31TRUTH.

"A convert comes to learn, and not to pick and choose. . . . He comes to Catholicism as to a living stream, with a living teaching, and not to a mere collection of decrees and canons."
— Ven. John Henry Newman

"The mark of the faith is not tradition; it is conversion."
— G.K. Chesterton

"There is no happiness in the world comparable to that of the experience known as conversion."
— Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson

"The Pope is barely Catholic enough for some converts."
— John Ayscough

"Converts are perhaps the chief factor in the increasing vigor of the Catholic Church in our time."
— Hillaire Belloc