2cornucopias

The Role of Church History in Conversion to Catholicism

In 04 Fr. John McCloskey on 2014/03/13 at 12:00 AM

by Father John McCloskey

I am often asked to speak about conversions since I have been instrumental in bringing some people to the Faith. I have been invited to speak chiefly on account of the notoriety of a handful. Some were Protestant ministers of various denominations, others well known men of business, others intellectuals, and some politicians and journalists. A good number have been Jews, one the head of a synagogue when I first met him on the Internet. They represent a few of the many with whom I have dealt. I have written a short piece, available on my website, entitled “Winning Converts” with a companion piece entitled “Recovering Stray Catholics.” I am working on a book on this topic in collaboration with Mr. Russell Shaw to be published by Sophia Institute Press.

Now, what do these “high” level converts have in common? Very little except several traits that are highly valued, at least by this priest. They are all men of high intelligence, with a voracious and insatiable appetite for books, and most importantly, an unending thirst for the truth in all matters religious. Many of them faced familial opposition, the possible loss of reputation, and in some cases possible high political office. But their increasing conviction that they had encountered “the pearl of great price,” the Historical Church that is co-terminus with the Lord and Savior, conquered all doubts. Their assent was not simply “notional” to use Newmanian terms, but truly “real.” In some cases, their conversion was a question of years, or more than a decade of patient dealing backed by true friendship, prayer, and sacrifice. The sweetest words that I have ever heard and, thanks be to God, I have heard them often, are “I want to become a Catholic.”

No doubt, the historical argument was powerful in these conversions. Some of the better known converts have already told their story in print or tape, others will, I trust, do the same in the future. I always required that they read several books on the history of the Church because I do believe the argument, at least rationally, is unassailable—the Catholic Church is true, and no other has ever made a credible claim to be the one that was founded by Him. Either the Lord of History established a church with a visible structure on this earth until He comes again or there is simply no authority that guides and must be obeyed. From the time of the great Schism and the Protestant revolution, the principle of private judgment has given rise to thousands of Christian sects and denominations. That is hardly what was intended when He asked His Father “that all may be one.”

Those men and women whom I have instructed in the Faith over the last 20 years have read Philip Hughes, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Louis Bouyer, Warren Carroll, Orestes Brownson, Russell Shaw, Ken Whitehead and many others. They have also read many anthologies of converts telling how they came to that “Ancient Beauty, ever new.” History is at the heart of all conversion: personal histories and history as it is written by the historian, Flavius Josephus or Pliny the Younger, or Bede the Venerable or even enemies like Gibbon or Macaulay, all give witness to the One Church.

History, in fact, provides an essential perspective for the mission of conversion, and we must understand the historical moment in which we live. It is a post-Christian era in some respects. This is particularly true in what some decades ago was known as the First World, i.e. Europe and North America. Even though it pains us, it should not surprise us. After all, Christianity has all but disappeared at other times in history, for instance in the Middle East and northern Africa after the invasion of Islam by conquering forces. Now an even more rapid and unsettling de-Christianization is occurring in Europe, through minimal practice of faith in any traditional sense, a collapse of morality based on natural law and the Commandments, and a continental suicide of the native peoples by contraception. Hilaire Belloc, one of the great popular Catholic historians, could not have imagined how wrong he was when he said that:” Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe.” I am sure all of us are aware of the masterful work of historian Philip Jenkins who points out convincingly that the greatest recent growth in Christianity, both in numbers and orthodoxy, has been and will continue to be in Africa and Asia.

As for us in the United State, liberal Protestantism is fading fast with large decreases in membership and almost no creedal belief that distinguishes one sect from another. Virtually all have caved in on the moral issues having to do with marriage, family, and sexuality. “Private judgment” basically assures that Protestant sects and denominations will not evidence any belief in an objective moral teaching through Revelation. The upcoming 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, 1517, will show I think, that mainstream Protestantism in any culture transforming sense is finished in America. And there is no possibility of a Third or Fourth Great Awakening because secularism and the new paganism in a society sated by undreamt of affluence is not going to lead anyone simply to read the Bible and be converted. America is not a Christian nation in any sense other than that probably a plurality of our fellow citizens have been baptized, although that may change in the decades to come.

As for the Evangelicals and fundamentalists, I have great respect and affection for our fellow Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible as the sole source of revelation and salvation. I do not believe, however, that a Christian faith without the sacraments, without the liturgy, and without authority, can bring about a renewal of Christian life in our country. Indeed, without denigrating in any way the numerous dialogues that take place at the diocesan, national, and even international level between Catholics and Protestants, I simply do not believe there is any possibility of any one of the Protestant denominations as a group coming home given the decrepit state of their practice and belief. Ironically enough, it might have been possible 75 years ago when Catholic and Protestants generally shared a common moral belief with important doctrinal disagreements, but not now.

Truth be told, (and indeed are we not all truth-tellers?), there is also little possibility of any of the autonomous Orthodox Churches acknowledging the primacy of Peter and arriving at full allegiance to the dogmas and moral life of the Catholic Church. We know there has been virtually no development of common doctrine after the first seven ecumenical councils in the East. How could there be, given there is no universal shepherd of the Orthodox to call and ratify ecumenical Councils? Indeed, separated from the fullness of truth and the magisterium, the moral teachings in some areas have also deteriorated. The result has been a mystical spiritual theology, of great interest to monks, but not applicable to the Eastern Christian in the street. There is no evangelizing zeal, or lay spirituality. The Eastern Churches are largely sacramental and indeed, if a Patriarch were to return home to Rome, how many of his faithful would there be to follow? We must pray above all for a change in heart in our Eastern Orthodox brethren so we can welcome them home.

Having said all of this, I have to acknowledge openly that the Spirit blows where it will, and God’s grace poured into open hearts can indeed perform miracles of mass or denominational conversion to Catholicism. It can happen when and how the Lord wants, but, I think it safe to say that for the foreseeable future which is our lifespan, converts coming to the fullness of faith will come one by one, or family by family, and occasionally congregation by congregation. And that is the way it should be. Early Christianity grew over the course of some 275 years to its legalization. Starting with Pentecost, it spread from 12 to hundreds and eventually to millions until at the beginning of 4tth century, it composed 10 percent of the Roman Empire. The Church was legalized in 313 and less than a century later was the state religion. The remarkable growth was not the result of mass conversion, but rather of the personal witness in behavior of individual persons and families, including confessors and martyrs fortified by prayer and the sacraments.

We must remind ourselves that each year there are hundreds of thousands of adults who are either baptized during the Easter vigil or received into full communion within the Church. This number is growing, and while always a small percentage of the whole, it does mean that an increasing number of “serious” Catholics are entering the Church, the great majority of them removed from the controversies of the post-conciliar Church in the United States. We may take heart in that younger priests ordained within the last 15 years (given the advanced age of current pastors, they will soon become pastors themselves) are more oriented towards evangelization of persons, families, and the society than those who were ordained prior to the pontificate of John Paul II. The Holy Father’s example of his living the “duc In altum” in order to fish souls without apologies will be the standard modus operandi of bishops and priests certainly well into this new century.

Two other factors are helping to break through the wall of mistrust in this post-Christian era. One is various new ecclesial institutions and movements whose impact is just now being felt in the US. They operate with full approval of the Church, are lay oriented, and by their very nature are apostolic and evangelizing. They provide yet another way for non-Catholics to witness a lived Christianity in the world that over time may bring millions to the Church in the years ahead. One of these movements is the Coming Home Network itself, which has contributed to the conversion of thousands of Protestant ministers into the Catholic Church and will be seen in the English speaking world, I believe, as the 21st century equivalent of the Oxford movement of the 19th century England of my hero, Venerable John Henry Newman to whom we should all pray for the unity of Christians in the Catholic Church. He, as many converts, knew the sleepless nights, the serious study, the long hours of prayer, the fears of loss of income, of friends and even the love of family that is involved in coming home to the Church. Such it will always be for acquiring the pearl of great price.

The second factor is tens of millions of Hispanic immigrants in our country with surely more to come regardless of changes in immigration laws. Sadly and ironically, without them the Unites States would be in negative population growth as we are now hovering at the lowest per capita birth rate in our history as a nation. Abortion and contraception continue to take their deadly toll. Without the Hispanics, virtually all of who are at least culturally Catholic, we as a nation would be doomed to the almost certain fate of continental Europe: demographic suicide within several decades. The catechesis and evangelization of Hispanic Catholics is therefore crucial for the health of the Church and country, an important means of breaking through the wall of mistrust to bring other Christians home.

But far beyond all these signs that, in time, the wall of mistrust will fall looms the magnificent figure of John Paul II. The greatest Pope of the last 500 years will leave much magisterial teaching behind for us to study and implement in the decades ahead. Although he has many important themes in his Pontificate, the one that is clearly closest to his heart and to that of Christ is that all may be one. His ecumenical outreach to his fellow Christians has been tireless and nothing less than extraordinary. He has not spared any effort to reach out to fellow Christians, urging them to recognize and embrace” the fullness of truth” in the Catholic Church, always with great respect and kindness in acknowledging all that is true in their traditions, whether Orthodox or Protestant. In virtually every one of the over 100 papal trips, he has always scheduled, when feasible, meetings with other Christian leaders to extend a hand of friendship and fellowship. At times, he has done so and exposed himself to coolness, indifference, and even insult. In doing so, he imitates the example of the Lord and his Apostle Paul, preaching “opportune et importune” (in season and out).

Pope John Paul’s extraordinary witness alone has been enough for millions to become Catholic and for many millions to return to the Faith. I share his vision of the springtime of the Church in this century and pray that the crowning achievement of this springtime will be the unity of all Christians. The favorite short prayer of Saint Jose Maria Escriva, a man whose example and writings have brought many home to the Church, was “Omnes cum Petro ad Jesus per Mariam (All with Peter, to Jesus through Mary!). May it be so.


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: