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Conversions To The Catholic Faith — A Gift From God

August 9, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Many Wanderer readers, I am sure, would concur with me in saying that there are few things more inspiring to read in Catholic literature than accounts of conversion to the faith. The spiritual journey of a convert has a miraculous wonder about it — that in many cases against seemingly impossible odds a man or woman of another religion or devoid of any religion at all should discover the path to truth and eternal bliss, perceiving the gentle invitations of God in the pages of a book, or in the grandeurs of nature, or in the beauty of fine art or music.
Most often a convert’s journey to the Catholic faith begins with an intellectual realization that the Catholic Church offers realistic answers to questions that their own religion fails to answer. Such was the experience of George Hare Patterson, a convert from Unitarianism:
“. . .My work as a missionary led me among the very poorest and distressed and vicious of mankind, and, in spite of many prepossessions and of deeply rooted convictions, I was made, after a while, to feel the absolute necessity of dogma. How to help poor struggling humanity in face of all the terrible problems of pain, sin, and death, without setting forth some objective truth, seemed to me to be a question pressing for solution” (G.H. Patterson, in Roads to Rome, being Personal Records of Some of the More Recent Converts to the Catholic Faith, London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901, pp. 185-186).
The completion of the divine work of Patterson’s conversion was wrought by the mysterious magnetic power that the Blessed Sacrament exercises even over those of other faiths who happen to step into a Catholic church:
“. . . I had a little daughter who, strange to relate, had received the grace of Catholic baptism. After four brief but very happy years, she was taken from me. After that — I could not have given a reason why — I often wandered into Catholic churches, for it seemed to me as though I was nearer to her there than in any other place on earth, and that He too was nearer to me there as the Father of consolation and of comfort. A deep sense of peace, the significance of which I could not then comprehend, at such times stole into my inmost soul” (ibid., p. 190).
Another convert tells how after he had gone from being a Fundamentalist Irish Protestant to being for a time a zealously anti-religious secularist, his life took a dramatic turn when as he was passing Brompton Oratory in London one Easter Monday he decided out of curiosity to stop into the church with his wife and his son:
“I had barely opened the door when I seemed to have entered the spiritual world. I felt myself encompassed by the Unseen, and an awful feeling took possession of me. . . . Then did I realize what was meant by the power of the Spirit, and I remained under its influence about an hour, unconsciously communing with that One Whom I had all my life rejected and despised . . . here at last was Peace” (anonymous account, in ibid., p. 173).
Having come to doubt the claims of Anglicanism, the famed English martyrologist Fr. Bede Camm, OSB (1864-1942) had informed himself of all the essential arguments in favor of the Catholic Church as the one true Church and had judged them to be valid, yet he still could not bring himself to overcome his anxieties about taking the final step into the Church. The moment of decision finally came when on vacation he knelt to pray in a monastic chapel:
“. . . I heard the brethren chant those words of the Credo: ‘Et unam sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam Ecclesiam.’ And as they sang them the clouds rolled away from off my soul, and the light of faith shone on it once for all” (Fr. Bede Camm, in ibid., p. 32).
Looking back upon this experience, Fr. Camm reiterates what other converts have affirmed, that in the end arguments alone will not suffice — there must also be the action of God: “A conversion, then, is, and must always be, the work of God. No amount of reading, no amount of controversy, will ever bring to a soul the Divine light of faith. It is dark till God illuminate it” (ibid., pp. 32-33).
A book, a painting, a work of music or a magnificent sunset may be the instrument for a change of heart, but this raw “firewood” must be kindled by what God does unseen. And this is where prayer on the part of faithful Catholics can make all the difference.
Many of us can attest to the experience of praying for someone to have a change of heart only to find after doing so repeatedly and over an extended period of time that nothing seems to have changed.
But prayer does change things. Often enough God keeps His dealings with individual souls quite private. And we must also bear in mind that no matter how stubborn a person may be in adhering to a life of sin or in refusing to see the light of truth, God holds the key to the innermost depths of every man’s heart. There is no deadbolt lock strong enough to keep Him from entering whenever and however He wills.
God can suddenly enlighten the heart at any time and in any place. The convert William Lambert Brant recalls the day that he was standing on a street corner in New York City waiting for a trolley car as he wrestled in his mind with the one remaining Catholic doctrine that he was still hesitating to accept — the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
He had already been properly instructed by two priests in the tenets of the faith, including the Eucharist, but in this final battle he knew that there was nothing further a priest could say to him to get him past this hurdle — what he needed now was the handiwork of God within his soul. When the trolley car arrived, he boarded it and paid his fare. It was simply after taking his seat that suddenly, inexplicably, all his doubts cleared away and he was at peace: “Faith, the gift of God had been, shall I say, poured into my soul” (W.L. Brant, in Fr. John A. O’Brien, ed., The Way to Emmaus: The Intimate Personal Stories of Converts to the Catholic Faith, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1953, p. 315).
Four days later Brant was received into the Catholic Church.
Many converts have found themselves asked by their former co-religionists whether after becoming Catholic they have remained content with their decision. Their testimonies in this regard stand as a lesson to all of us as to the pearl of great price we have been given as children of the Church.
Thomas Scott Preston (1824-1891) was an Episcopalian minister from New England who after his conversion to the Catholic faith at the age of twenty-five was ordained a priest and later served as a vicar general in the Archdiocese of New York, also founding a new religious congregation, the Sisters of the Divine Compassion.
In an essay published in 1888, Msgr. Preston tells of his serenity in his newfound faith:
“There were some worldly sacrifices, but although they sobered my face a little, they did not drive the sunshine from my heart. At last I was in my Father’s house, and never from that moment have I had one doubt of the truth of the Catholic religion. . . .
“I found the supernatural without any loss of the natural. I had no sacrifice of liberty to complain of; for when once the divine voice speaks, it is not only the duty but the happiness of man to obey it. . . . Great natural gifts, learning, culture, such as I had not seen before, were all around me. . . ..I have seen heroic virtue in every class, in the learned and the unlettered, and a unity of all in a faith which was as strong as if it were part of one’s being” (“My Religious Experience,” The Forum, volume 4, February 1888, pp. 632-633).
Recounting his post-conversion experiences, the English convert, author, and publisher Charles Kegan Paul (1828-1902) observes:
“All human relationships become holier, all human friends dearer, because they are explained and sanctified by the relationships and the friendships of another life. Sorrows have come to me in abundance since God gave me grace to enter His Church, but I can bear them better than of old, and the blessing He has given me outweighs them all. May He forgive me that I so long resisted Him, and lead those I love unto the fair land wherein He has brought me to dwell!” (C.K. Paul, in Roads to Rome, p. 205).

A Single Canticle Of Praise

Has the Church changed her mind about converting the nations, the peoples, all peoples, to the Catholic faith? Of course not. In the Collect for the memorial of the recently canonized virgin St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Church prays that “when all are gathered into your Church from every nation, tribe and tongue, they may magnify you in a single canticle of praise” (The Roman Missal: English translation according to the third typical edition, 2011 — © 2010 International Commission on English in the Liturgy).
Such a prayer as this and two thousand years of carrying out what Christ Himself has commanded in this regard do not allow of exceptions.
When it comes to evangelization, the Church’s efforts to invite the entire world to the fullness of faith within her fold, it is impossible to sound the retreat. Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) is irreformable. Of course the particular means for evangelization must be prudent — clearly it is wrong to force others to convert or to resort to methods that are aggressive or intimidating, such as is seen in the methods of certain evangelical Protestant sects.
But we all need to be on the watch for opportunities to invite others into the Catholic Church.

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