When G. K. Chesterton observed that 'No parents lie awake at night worrying that their children might become Methodists', he was not knocking Methodists, but making the real point that people's reaction to Catholicism is very different from their feelings toward non-Catholic forms of Christianity.
Most people don't mind too much if their friends and family join a mainline Protestant denomination or shift from one form of non-Catholic Christianity to another. As Sheridan Gilley points out, to the popular mind, it's not much different from changing the brand name of any other customer service. But while non-Catholic church shopping doesn't alarm friends and family, almost all have a strong reaction when one decides to become a Catholic.
The curious thing about these reactions is that the convert to Catholicism is criticized in terms which are completely contradictory. So his educated friends will blame him for choosing a thoughtless religion that requires mindless obedience, while his not-so-intellectual acquaintances will say he is exchanging simple down to earth religion for the casuistry of Jesuits and the subtleties of medieval theology.
Friends with taste will giggle that the convert to Catholicism will now have to surround himself with plastic statues, snow-storm paperweights with miniature basilicas inside and pictures of Jesus with googly eyes. In the meantime his more ordinary friends will suspect him of a sudden effete interest in Michelangelo, Palestrina and ornate Italianate churches. The Anglo-Catholic will sneer at Catholic folk masses, bad buildings and ignorant Irish sermons, while the Evangelical will think the convert has suddenly gone in for fancy vestments, processions, and Latin liturgy.
The ordinary fellow will think the convert elitist while the snob thinks him common. The sinner will say he's self-righteous while the non-conformist will blame him for mixing with sinners. The conservative will suspect him of left wing sympathies, while the liberal will judge him a neo fascist, and the feminist will call him a misogynist while the Protestant accuses him of worshipping a goddess.
Should the convert be a minister in a non-Catholic denomination, his decision will be even more misunderstood. He or she will seem to be disloyal, ungrateful and self-righteous. If he is risking his family's security, giving up status, a nice house and a secure future he is simply considered a fool. The convert may face all of these charges, but more often the reaction is simply one of bewilderment.
In these ecumenical days when the Anglican Eucharist looks and sounds like the Catholic one, most people simply don't see the difference. Personal faith is deemed the only necessity and the rest is a matter of consumer choice. Indeed, as a devout, but exasperated Methodist asked me as I prepared to leave my Anglican parish, 'But surely the only thing that matters is how much we love Jesus!?'
Her simple cry is difficult to answer, not because there is no answer, but because there are too many. In his opening chapter, Fr Graham Leonard quotes Newman to explain how impossible it is to give a single answer for one's decision to be received into the Catholic Church. Newman said it cannot be expressed in a formula, 'Catholicism is a matter, it cannot be taken in a teacup.'
The reasons for any conversion are manifold and personal; furthermore, the longer one is a Catholic the more those reasons from the past unfold and become even more complex. It is as if the mystery and depth of the Catholic faith reaches back to redeem one's past as well as offering a future hope.
In becoming a Catholic the convert experiences a real break with non-Catholic family and friends. It is natural for them to take the convert's departure as a rejection of their own religion, life and goodness. In our work at the St Barnabas Society we find that each convert invariably feels in becoming a Catholic, that he has not rejected what he had before; instead he has added to it.
The convert should be able to affirm everything Protestant Christians affirm, he simply cannot deny what they deny. Indeed, this sense of 'coming home' and finding their previous form of Christianity fulfilled, is one of the marks of the true convert in contrast to the one who crosses the Tiber simply as a reaction to something which displeased him about his former church.
But this conviction that the former faith of the convert is fulfilled, not rejected, is perhaps the most difficult to communicate without appearing self-righteous and condemnatory toward those who have not taken the same step.
From Earth's Wide Bounds ...
If it is difficult for one person to summarize his reasons for becoming a Catholic, it is impossible to generalize for all converts. Certain themes, like that of 'coming home' recur, but for each one, the way of discovery is unique and the starting place different. In this collection an attempt has been made to gather conversion stories from a wide variety of starting places.
Among the contributors are former Anglican bishops. a woman Salvation Army officer and a vicar's wife. There are former Anglo-Catholics, Plymouth Brethren, an American fundamentalist, Church of Scotland, New Age, American Presbyterian and Evangelical Anglican. Some of the contributions are academic in style because they are written by academics.
They are balanced by other stories which are more personal and anecdotal. So the stories were not too limp and subjective, each convert was asked to weave the details of their conversion into an issue that concerned them, and which shed light on the larger question of conversion now at the turn of the millennium.
The stories have been divided into three sections. In the opening section the contributors deal with some basic questions which confront the non-Catholic Christian. The first two deal with the question of authority. They challenge the reader to assess the basis for discovering and interpreting God's revelation to mankind.
Ian Ker's essay considers how C. S. Lewis and Newman confronted these questions, while Kenneth Noakes reflects on the continuing importance of the Early Church Fathers on the vital issues facing Christians today.
Cyprian Blamires rounds off the section with a personal account of how he confronted the same basic questions of authority, authenticity and continuity from his position as an Evangelical Anglican.
The second section puts the issue of conversion into perspective both historically and globally. Sheridan Gilley places the current wave of conversions in England in a wider European and nineteenth century context.
Richard Rutt spent a lifetime ministering as an Anglican bishop abroad, so he gives a wider picture of the Anglican-Roman Catholic scene in an essay charting the development of the Anglican Communion.
From his work with Aid to the Church in Need, Neville Kyrke-Smith considers the relationship between the Catholic West and the suffering church of the East, while Marcus Grodi, director of The Coming Home Network, discusses the new wave of American converts, many of whom come from Evangelical backgrounds.
Lynn Jolly concludes the section with a personal story of how the universal appeal of Catholicism drew her from life as a Church of Scotland minister to be received into the Catholic Church.
The final section is a collection of personal stories from varied backgrounds. Stratford Caldecott relates his journey from an agnostic home through various esoteric neo-pagan belief systems. Kate Prior shares the hardships and joys of moving from Anglican vicar's wife to becoming one of the few women married to a Catholic priest in charge of a parish.
From a Plymouth Brethren upbringing, Keith Jarrett tells how the Bible brought him into the Catholic Church, while Anthony Symondson reflects on the nature of Anglo-Catholicism and relates his journey from that tradition.
The third section is rounded off with Patricia Gibbons' moving account of her lack of fulfilment
in the Salvation Army and her family's discovery of the Catholic Faith.
Founded in 1896 as The Converts' Aid Society, The St Barnabas Society exists to offer pastoral and material help to those converts whose livelihood is endangered through their decision to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Most of the contributors either work for the Society, or have been beneficiaries or employees of the Society in the past. All are supporters of the Society's work, and each contribution gives its own witness to the discreet and generous help which the society continues to provide.
Marcus Grodi - the director of The Coming Home Network International (The St Barnabas Society's American cousin) points out that the true convert to Catholicism is not just seeking a home in a church he likes better than any other, instead he must be in a 'conversion' state of mind and heart.
As St Benedict puts it, he must seek conversatio morum - conversion of life. Neville Kyrke-Smith quotes St Augustine to back this up when he says the convert must convert daily, returning to God in every moment. This metanoia, or change of mind and heart, is what lies at the core of true conversion, and it is something all Christians are called to.
As such, conversion also lies at the heart of true ecumenism. One of the charges laid against most converts is that they are anti-ecumenical in deciding to become Catholic. But the Pope calls all Christians to profound conversion of heart in order for ecumenism to take place. In his encyclical Ut Unim Sint, he writes,
'There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart personally as well as communally. Each one has to change his way of looking at things.' He calls Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to move forward into a new re-formation of the Church, 'The Second Vatican Council, connecting renewal, conversion and reform states that Christ summons the whole church ... to a continual reformation.'
In an encyclical which should be read by all Christians, the Pope calls the whole church to join in a quest for a new kind of Christianity in which all Christians can once more unite.
The New Converts
Sheridan Gilley's essay shows how there were traditionally two strands of conversions in British history - those who converted through an Irish connection, usually through marriage, and those who converted through the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement. But the Irish are increasingly assimilated into English culture, and with Anglo-Catholicism being a spent force, these sources of conversion will dwindle.
Can a new ecumenism rise from these ashes for the third millennium? In a recent article (Catholic Herald, 19 March 1999) Ian Ker looks to a new dynamic which is emerging between Evangelicals and Catholics, and Graham Leonard has also noticed a radical shift in Christianity which presages what may be a new character in the twenty-first century church. Fr Leonard has spoken of this re-alignment as ...
... between those on the one hand who believe that the Christian Gospel is revealed by God; is to be heard and received, and that its purpose is to enable men and women to obey God in love and through them for creation itself to be redeemed. On the other hand are those who believe that it can and should be modified and adapted to the cultural and intellectual attitudes and demands of successive generations and indeed originates in them.
The two main groups who believe in a revealed, not a relative Christianity are, of course, the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholics. Ian Ker points out in his essay in this book that Newman also affirmed the inner vitality of both Evangelicalism and Catholicism.
For him they were the two forms of Christianity which were 'real' while Anglo-Catholicism remained a theory, and Liberal Christianity had departed from the revealed faith.
While Evangelicalism and Catholicism have been traditional enemies, there are many signs on both sides of the Atlantic that a significant shift is happening in both communities. Old boundaries are dissolving, old prejudices dying out and old doctrinal disputes seem increasingly irrelevant.
Together Evangelicals and Catholics are recognising a shared social concern. Both communities are working together in the pro-life movement, Third World aid, and the push for debt relief to poor countries. In America and Britain, both traditions have come together to form political alliances which pressure their governments for the strengthening of Christian values in society.
Six of the fifteen contributors to this collection are from an Evangelical background; they are also the younger contributors. In the United States, books like Surprised by Truth have chronicled the conversions of a whole wave of converts from Evangelical Protestantism, and these converts have come into the Catholic Church with their immense Bible knowledge, their communication skills, and their zeal undiminished.
Former Presbyterian minister, Scott Hahn has an international ministry teaching the Biblical basis of his new-found Catholic faith. Patrick Madrid publishes a lively magazine promoting evangelism and apologetics, while others engage in broadcasting, preaching and teaching on an international scale.
These lay apostolates are having an enormous impact in both opening Catholics' eyes to the riches of the Scriptures as well as explaining the Catholic faith in terms accessible to Evangelicals.
While Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid, and others work as converts to Catholicism, the Catholic Church is learning from Evangelicals in other ways. In the United States, England and Latin America, Catholics are learning how to do primary evangelism using an adapted form of the highly successful, Evangelical Anglican 'Alpha' course which originates from Holy Trinity, Brompton. Through this course and other resources, modern lay Catholics are learning to understand and communicate their faith with an open-ness and zeal unheard of before.
But the cross-fertilization goes both ways. Evangelicals are also becoming more 'catholic'. In Britain Christianity magazine, a trendy Evangelical publication, explores Ignatian spirituality, Benedictine retreats, pilgrimages, liturgy and Gregorian chant.
At the same time, Evangelical leaders are less shy about using 'catholic' techniques of prayer and worship. In America, churches where candles and set liturgies would - even ten years ago - be unheard of, are celebrating Lent and Advent with crosses, candles, ashes, and liturgies borrowed from the Catholics and Anglicans.
As the Evangelicals pick and mix parts of the Catholic tradition they cannot help but learn about the cohesive unity of the faith. As one American Baptist minister observed when told that the ashes he wanted to use for Ash Wednesday were derived from burning the Palm Sunday palms, 'Whoa! All this Catholic stuff seems to be connected!'
A New Pentecost
As we move into the new millennium, the old nationalistic boundaries which helped define religious affiliations are crumbling. In Britain and the United States the Irish, polish, and Italian Catholics are now more English and American than European.
Through travel, education and grass roots ecumenism, the old Catholic - Evangelical distinctions make less and less sense. For many reasons, the old ethnic and denominational religious barriers will be replaced by a new kind of Christianity. This new expression of the faith will not recognize the traditional national, linguistic, and denominational borders.
As Vatican II really gets into the bloodstream of the Church, the old doctrinal and liturgical misunderstandings will also disappear at the grass roots level. Catholics will become more evangelical and Evangelicals will become more catholic.
Lynn Jolly points out in her essay that Tillich referred to the 'era' of reform, rather than the 'churches' of the Reformation, and as one Catholic bishop has remarked, 'The era of reform is over.'
If one wishes to imagine the Church of the future then there are several good places to get a glimpse. The Protestant-based Taizé community has been building a vision of this new pan-European Christianity for nearly fifty years now. At the Taizé European Youth Meetings, Christian young people from across Europe and from all denominations meet to pray and worship in a liturgical and catholic setting.
In a more Catholic context, the World Youth Day is an amazing collection of tens of thousands of young Catholics from all over the world. For them the national boundaries and ethnic differences make little sense. Like Taizé, their worship and style is Catholic and Evangelical at the same time.
In France the Community of the Beatitudes was started in the sixties by a former Protestant minister, now a Catholic deacon. The community has houses all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Their teachings are faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, but their worship is a mixture of Catholic and charismatic, blending perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with traditional chant and modern music.
While their religious life appears Catholic, their apostolic work is Evangelical. They run Christian radio stations, produce television programmes, run printing presses, do street preaching, run holiday camps, old people's homes and orphanages; and young people are flocking to join.
Catholics in Britain tend to look back to the past too much. Perhaps it is a national disease. But nostalgia should not blind us to the positive aspects of the future. We should be aware of this movement and be prepared. If there is a Second Spring in the Church, then it will include Evangelicals and Catholics.
When Evangelicals come knocking we must be prepared and aware of what they are looking for in the Catholic Church.First and foremost, we must keep our Catholic distinctiveness. In the quest for unity it does no good to focus on the points where we agree to the neglect of our Catholic identity. This is especially so because the Evangelical convert actually wants the Catholic Church to be Catholic.
He does not want Fr Folkmass and Sister Sandals to dish out a pseudo-Protestant, watered down service with bland liturgy and hymn lyrics from greeting cards. If an Evangelical becomes a Catholic he wants liturgical worship which anchors him in the Church of the ages.
This does not necessarily mean he is a fundamentalist or a Catholic fogey. He doesn't want Tridentine worship; he wants the modern rite. He doesn't mind good modern music, but whatever is done he wants done with care, devotion and a sense of reverence. He wants a celebration of Mass which takes him to the threshold of heaven.
The Evangelical who comes to the Catholic Church will be met with caution. Liberal Catholics may assume he will join the ranks of their enemies, the Traditionalists; while the Traditionalists will suspect his innate Protestantism. Perhaps their instinct to suspect the Evangelical convert is accurate, for the Evangelical coming into the Catholic Church will challenge both the Liberal and the Traditionalist assumptions.
The convert wants to accept all of Catholicism, but with due submission and respect, the Evangelical convert also wants the Catholic Church to learn from the riches of his tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that the non-Catholic churches have many gifts (para. 819), so the Evangelical converts have much to bring into the Catholic Church.
They bring a renewed zeal for evangelism and missionary work. They bring an immense amount of Bible knowledge and interest. They know how to communicate, and they understand how to relate the faith to the needs of modern men and women. We Catholics must welcome them, use their gifts and love them.
In short, the Evangelical convert wants it all. He wants lively, intelligent preaching with reverent and traditional worship. He wants full empowerment of the laity, but with the priest in charge. He wants the apostolic 'faith once delivered to the saints' expressed in modern and relevant terms.
He wants firm, moral teaching and wants to help the Catholic Church give a prophetic voice to the world in both words and works. He and his family want to pray, worship, study and work for the kingdom in the fullest possible way on earth. In other words, he wants to be Catholic.
It is hoped that this collection may play a part in helping Catholics understand why others want to join the Catholic Church, and help Evangelicals and other Protestants understand the call of the Catholic Church to unity. Those of us who have been Anglicans may be inclined to despair at the failure of the ARCIC (Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission) discussions.
But at the grass roots level the Spirit may be doing a new, and even greater creative work — bringing a new church out of the chaos of division. If a new Pentecost is germinating, it will produce a church unfettered by the old denominational, national, doctrinal and historical prejudices.
The budding of this new Church may be part of the 'second spring' which Newman prophesied; a Second Spring in which the old differences of the second millennium are buried once and for all, and a newly unified Church emerges ready for the challenge of the third millennium.