2cornucopias

Conversion Insights – Part I by Kathleen Prevost

In 12 Converts on 2015/08/07 at 12:00 AM

One evening in the spring of 2010, with a handful of Catholics, two Anglicans, and two Baptists joining the celebration, my husband and I were received into the Catholic church.  How it happened cannot be explained briefly, as novelist Muriel Spark has noted: “When I am asked about my conversion, why I became a Catholic, I can only say that the answer is both too easy and too difficult.  The simple explanation is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed; there was no blinding revelation in my case.  The more difficult explanation would involve the step by step building up of a conviction; as John Henry Newman himself pointed out, when asked about his conversion, it was not a thing one could propound ‘between the soup and the fish’ at a dinner party.  ‘Let them be to the trouble that I have been to,’ said Newman.  Indeed, the existential quality of a religious experience cannot be simply summed up in general terms.”

Nevertheless, I’ll attempt to describe the journey.

Raised Protestant, I gradually discovered Catholicism. J.R.R. Tolkien told his son “sentire cum ecclesia” – to think with the church, for she would always in the end be a true guide.  Here’s how I found my way to her.

The Gospel Written on My Heart

My parents brought me up in the Christian faith, Wesleyan Methodist version.  My father led by example: he made sure we attended church weekly, even though we groaned about it as children do.  The service consisted of a 30-minute sermon thoughtfully explaining a Bible passage or theological concept, book-ended with beautiful hymns sung with enthusiasm. My siblings and I memorized Scripture. We attended Sunday school and prayer meetings and youth groups.  To learn our way around the Bible, we competed in “sword drills” (these were competitions to see who could quickly find a given passage).  At home, my mother formed my moral imagination in Christian orthodoxy, whose grammar was allegiance to truth and the necessity of suffering and self-sacrifice.  Before I went to kindergarten, she read aloud the stories of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Several of my relatives were Protestant missionaries in Africa.  My neighbors were also my Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders and church musicians.  Nearly every adult I knew viewed his employment as a Christian vocation.  These people weren’t perfect; nevertheless, many of them constantly encouraged me to examine my conscience and  model my life after Jesus Christ.

In sum, my childhood milieu was an invaluable gift.  I found out later that Pope John Paul II wrote about early Christian formation even as I was living it: “Experience shows what an important role is played by a family living in accordance with the moral norm, so that the individual born and raised in it will be able to set out without hesitation on the road of the good, which is always written in his heart.”  (Letter to Families)1

When I was young, the Gospel was written on my heart. Now in middle age, I’ve come to believe that the Catholic church teaches the fullness of the truth, the “Gospel-PLUS,” as Ordinary Jeffrey Steenson expressed it.  (The Causes of Becoming Catholic) 2 But nothing about Catholicism requires rejection of Protestant roots.

I’m grateful every day to the many kind and earnest souls who taught me to love the Lord.  The words of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus when he became a Catholic articulate my sentiments exactly: “To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still.  In the mystery of Christ and his Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger.  We travel together still.

Beauty and History

As I grew older, education and experience opened my eyes to the splendors of the created world, in particular the beautiful art that Christians have made.  My Christian great-grandparents and grandparents were artists 3 Because local college music professors were on staff and in the choir at our church, the hymns and organ music and choral anthems were often among the best that Christian history has to offer.

In high school, Episcopalian relatives and friends introduced me to liturgical worship where Holy Communion is the focus. The beauty of the Anglican liturgy immediately attracted me, although I knew nothing of its provenance in the Catholic mass. Likewise the elegance of the liturgical year was captivating. I had known only Christmas, Easter, and Reformation Sunday.

Now there were many more celebrations of God and his saints to enjoy.

In college my professors taught Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poems of George Herbert and John Donne, St. Augustine’s Confessions, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and the writings of St. Catherine of Sienna. I learned how to play the organ and thereby discovered the genius of Bach.

Traveling to England one spring break introduced me to medieval cathedrals, and again, it was love at first sight. When I finally made it to the cathedral at Chartres in France, I felt there was no more beautiful Christian place on earth.

Pope Benedict XVI recently said: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. The arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere. On the other hand, if we look at the saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light. Likewise, if we contemplate the beauties created by faith, they are simply, I would say, the living proof of faith.”

Through Christian art and biography, I was finding proof of Christianity’s truth.  I was also slowly discovering the immense history of the faith, and, as John Henry Newman wrote, “To be deep in early church history is to cease to be Protestant.”   The very existence of Catholicism – its lineage clearly defined all the way back to St. Peter, its liturgical structure unchanged since the earliest centuries of  Christianity – became more and more intriguing. I saw that the church has survived and nourished Christians ever since apostolic times.  She has suffered the same political machinations that afflict any other institution, ones that in fact have devastated other institutions: elimination of the hierarchy (the Roman execution of early popes and priests), division of the hierarchy (the late medieval Papal schism), corruption in the hierarchy (Alexander VI, among others).  She has corrected grave errors, such as those that horrified St. Francis and those that later sparked the Reformation.  She has been beaten down but not broken by human sinfulness – most recently the priests who sexually abused children, and the bishops who shielded them.

Over the long haul, the Holy Spirit has continually renewed and reformed the church.  I found this fixedness, this stability, this endurance, to be compelling, particularly in light of constant Protestant division and multiplication.

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