Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My path to Rome: A story of God's grace and forgiveness and love

Catholic Education Resource Center by Ian Hunter
The story of my conversion is the story of four men: Pope John Paul II, my father (albeit, an unwitting guide), C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. It is the story of the Church's decision to publish a comprehensive Catechism of the Christian faith, and of a priest willing to go beyond the requirements of his office to fetch one lost sheep out of the wilderness. It is the story of faithful Catholics who prayed. And above all, first, last, and always, it is the same old story that it always is – a story of God's grace and forgiveness and love. Deo gratias
It is difficult to write objectively about something as intensely personal as conversion; I recognize also that my own conversion is but one case among many, but since it is the one I know best, it is what I shall try here to explain.

Let me dare to begin with a question that perhaps should best come last: What is the alternative to conversion? Except what G. K. Chesterton, writing of his own conversion, called a sorry surrender to "...the awful actualities of our time?" I came to believe that there is no answer, except Rome, to that question.

Still it is legitimate to ask why someone, in the sixth decade of his life, with more of life behind than ahead of him, would abandon his denomination and the liturgies and traditions with which he is familiar, for the remote, somewhat intimidating vastness of Rome. In short, why become a Roman Catholic?

Well, all such stories are long ones, and just as aspects of one's human birth remain mysterious, so also aspects of one's spiritual rebirth, perhaps opaque beyond human explanation. But here is what I know. My conversion story is, in part, the story of four men, only two of whom were Catholics.

But before I tell you about the part played by these four men, let me say something about how I experienced the mechanics of becoming a Roman Catholic.

I first tried the RCIA program a few years ago at a London Catholic church and I found that experience quite disillusioning. At the first meeting there were a handful of people (mostly young girls taking instruction because they were engaged to Catholic boys), and the course leader, an extremely friendly woman whose purpose, so far as I could discern, was to make us understand just how very special and wonderful each one of us really and truly was; soon, she said, we would become "really, really close" and there was much group hugging – at least metaphorically – but little instruction on matters of Catholic doctrine. Needless to say, the word "dogma" was never used. Now since I had gone to learn more about Catholic dogma, I found the leader's forced intimacies embarrassing, the pabulum offered un­nourishing, and the absence of discussion unsatisfactory.

After going to a few of the weekly sessions, I dropped out; when I was attending I noted that on the rare occasions when Catholic doctrine was mentioned, it was usually misstated (using the Catechism of the Catholic Church – itself never mentioned – as the standard), or deferred. So if a difficult question was raised, say, about Catholic teaching on marriage or purgatory, the response would be: "Oh, we'll get to that." Then we would be reassured again how close, how intimate, how loving, we all were; I confess that I left the group before any such intimacy could flourish.

By the spring of 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying in Rome, I had moved to St. Thomas, Ontario, and I went to the main street gothic Catholic Church, Holy Angels, to pray for the Pope in what were clearly his last days on earth.

On the actual day that he died, a Saturday (April 2, 2005) there was an afternoon mass at Holy Angels and I went. The grief among the congregation was palpable. But to my astonishment, the priest carried on as though nothing whatever had happened; only when he came to the prayers of the people did he mention in passing that since the Holy Father had just died, we would be skipping the prayer for the Pope. Otherwise, nothing. When the announcements came, we were reminded of an upcoming potluck dinner and other social events, but not a word to assuage the shared grief that was palpable in the congregation; then we were dismissed, orphaned as I thought, into the night.

I was not then a Catholic. But I considered John Paul II the brightest light in the dark times through which I had lived my life, and, on that day, I expected more. "Never again will I enter this church," I muttered through clenched teeth on the way out the door. But, as often happens, God had other plans.

Which brings me to the first of four men responsible for my becoming a Catholic, by name Karol Wojtyla, a relatively obscure Polish Cardinal who astonished the world when on October 16, 1978 he stepped out on the balcony at St. Peter's, announced his new identity as Pope John Paul II, and declared in a dozen or more languages: "Be not afraid... Open the doors to Jesus Christ!"

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