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The Credo Pages

Why I am a Catholic

A complementary account of my conversion is embedded in the story, Dear to My Heart, which I wrote for the Moles Creative Writing Group in April 2007. While the story itself is fictitious - I am not called 'Philip' and I am still alive - three quarters of the story is autobiographical.

Doubt & Prejudice

I was brought up in the Church of England and certainly as a Protestant. I understood clearly that this was a reformed Church, that it had supplanted the corrupt, medieval Church of my country. But during my teens I became more and more aware that there were discordant voices and bickering within this Church; and some of the compromises between the 'High Church' and 'Low Church' parties seemed to my young mind to be fudges rather than real compromises; this troubled me. Also I began asking why my Church was better reformed than the other Protestant churches. I started attending other churches from time to time to learn more about them. I also read about other non-Christian religions in my search for 'the truth'. One particular group, the Plymouth Brethren, had quite an influence on me. I found the ones I met to be sincere and open in their Christianity and I learnt to have a great love for the Holy Scriptures.

One church I did not ever visit was the Catholic Church. One must remember that by the 1950s there had been some four centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda in Britain. I had received this from my parents , my teachers at school and from other grown-ups and, indeed, from things I had read. In nearly every case these people were not being consciously anti-Catholic but merely passing on what they thought was true. So I also accepted this as true: the Catholic Church was a corrupt organization that had overlaid Christianity with pagan superstition. Had not my Church been reformed because of this? Was this not reason why the Catholic Church must be resisted and rejected?


My Conversion

Thus I came up to university with these confusions and prejudices. I continued to worship in different Protestant churches and attend so-called 'non-denominational' (in fact inter-Protestant) meetings and worship. But early in my final year I attended a Mass with a Catholic friend; intellectually, I could find no reason not to just see what a Catholic service was like. But I found the experience quite different from what I had expected: I felt I 'had come home.' - that was a little unsettling

I began attending Mass and I knew that what the priest was holding up at the consecration was the Body of Christ, for had not Jesus Himself said: "This is my Body" (τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου)? But I could still not bring myself to acknowledge it. Then I thought to myself "If that is the Body of Christ, why do I not worship Him?"

At a Mass in mid November of 1960, when the priest held up the consecrated host, I said inwardly "My Lord and my God!" What happened next quite astounded me. I heard Christ speak as clearly as I hear anyone speak. I am not given to hearing voices, and I have experienced nothing like this since: it was unique. I guess I must have felt a bit like Paul did on the road to Damascus.

I was left in no doubt what I must do. But this was uncomfortable. Intellectually my mind was still clogged with the four centuries of anti-Catholic teaching. My mind told me that I must not become a Catholic; my spirit said otherwise. I obeyed my spirit, trusting that the Holy Spirit would in time resolve my intellectual difficulties.

I took instruction. Therein was another surprise. I had been led to believe that once a Catholic priest got his hands on you, he would do all he could to make sure you did not 'escape'. But at the first meeting with my instructor, I was, it seemed to me, being put off - not invited in. He was testing me to see if I was genuine in wanting to convert. That was the beginning of several other surprises as I found various prejudices of the past to be quite false and unfounded.

On Shrove Tuesday of 1961, I was at last received into the Catholic Church. A few weeks later I concluded my first Lent as a Catholic by walking, during Holy Week, with the Student Cross pilgrimage from Westminster Cathedral in London to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk where, in happier times, in the second year of his reign (1511) King Henry VIII went with his wife, Catherine of Aragon*.

On becoming a Catholic, I had begun to discover a wealth of spirituality that had, so to speak, been hidden from me for so many years. One of these treasures was devotion to Our Lady. The first two chapters of Luke's Gospel now had a richer and more profound meaning; I was now numbered among the generations that called Mary blessed (Luke 1:48)!

*Twenty seven years later the same king had the shrine destroyed. The shrine was refounded by Pope Leo XIII in 1897 when the first post-reformation pilgrimage took place.


Unlike Paul, I had not been persecuting the Church nor, after my 'Damascus experience' was I physically blind, merely mentally and spiritually numb for two or three days. So Christ did not ask me why I was persecuting Him; he asked me not to reject Him again. When had I rejected Him before? I thought back and remembered a few gentle goads. One thing that had disturbed me a little was too discover that at least three of my teachers in secondary school were Catholics. But they were not the simple minded, superstitious people I had been led to believe Catholics were; they were intelligent and learned people. Why did intelligent people follow this religion?

When I was 17, I discovered the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I fell in love with it and still love it. But in my folly at the time, I considered his Christianity came through despite his being a Catholic priest. I just could not understand why he had converted. It must surely be an aberration. Also about this time I went on weekend retreat for those considering being ordinands in the Church of England. At this retreat I found a Catholic Missal, and starting reading it and discovering rather more Christianity in it that I thought I would! But how did I re-act to all these 'goads'? I became vehemently anti-Catholic.

Why was Paul so vehement in his persecution of the Church? That he had been brought up as a Pharisee does not explain it; after all, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus had both been Pharisees. We cannot know for sure. But I have heard it suggested that the young boy, Saul, was troubled when he witnessed how Stephen died ("Lord, do not lay this sin against them"). It may be so. I may be that Saul (Paul) was beginning to discover one or two other things about the young Church that worried him and that he re-acted by turning aggressively against the Church (as I had become vehemently anti-Catholic). Although it is not generally now thought to have been in the original Greek, some manuscripts add the words "it is hard to kick against goads" to verse 4 of Acts, chapter 9 (some add these words to verse 5 instead). That is what I had been doing before Jesus asked me, "Will you reject me again?" - wilfully kicking against goads.

And now nearly half a century later? I am still a Catholic and hope to die a Catholic. It was the Mass that brought me, despite myself, to the Church; it is the Mass that keeps me in the Church - the Mass, the one eternal Sacrifice where Christ, both Priest and Victim, reconciles all creation to its God; the Mass, where earth is lifted up to heaven and we with the whole Church in space and time and with all the hosts of angels in the eternal worship of the crucified and risen Christ.

I conclude this page with the words J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael, in March 1941:

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. .... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man [and woman]'s heart desires."


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