I have been doing a bit of reading lately about John Henry Newman (pictured), since last month in a park in Birmingham numbered among the Blesseds of the Church. Like many, I have been fascinated by the Cardinal for years, and find in him a wonderful, strange creature.
Among the most wonderful things about him is his beady eyed assessment of himself, delivered in his old age. He had, he insisted, failed as a student (no first class honours), failed as a don (no tenure), failed as an Anglican priest (having been instrumental in setting up the Oxford Movement he then crossed the Tiber) , failed as a Catholic priest, then failed as a cardinal.
But still this brilliant, thoughtful churchman – ‘the Cardinal-Deacon of St George in Velabro, divine, philosopher, man of letters, leader of the Tractarian Movement’ – is regarded as the most illustrious of English converts to the Church.
“ ‘When Newman made up his mind to join the Church of Rome,’ observes R. H. Hutton, ‘his genius bloomed out with a force and freedom such as it never displayed in the Anglican communion.’ And continuing: ‘In irony, in humour, in eloquence, in imaginative force, the writings of the later and, as we may call it, emancipated portion of his career far surpass the writings of his theological apprenticeship. ‘ But English Catholic literature also gained a persuasive voice and a classic dignity of which hitherto there had been no example.”
Ah, Newman. What a man, what a mind, what a mixture. And in time, his name will be entered into the Canon of Saints, DV. But is he the most illustrious of English converts to the Church? Who would the competition be? And what are the criteria? I started a little hunt about people who had converted to try to get an understanding of those questions.
The most famous public convert to Catholicism in my young life was Malcolm Muggeridge, a name which has little recognition factor these days in the under 40s. The journalist, author, soldier, spy, media personality, and satirist was agnostic, moved to Christianity and the Festival of Light during the 1960s, and then is credited with with popularising Mother Teresa. In 1982, at the age of 79, the old puritan was received into the Catholic Church with his wife, Kitty.
There is something about the Church and writers. Novellist Graham Greene converted at the age of 22 in 1926; Beryl Bainbridge, who died only recently, was also among that glorious number, though you might have to say while she was Catholic in a general, there was quite a bit she was extremely anti. And Antonia Fraser is another; after the death of her first husband, Hugh Fraser, and of Vivien Merchant, the first wife of Harold Pinter, Fraser and Pinter were married in the Church by a Jesuit priest. Evelyn Waugh was supposed to have converted on his deathbed, as did Oscar Wilde (following the request perhaps of another famous convert, St Augustine of Hippo: ‘Lord, Make me chaste, but not yet’) , GK Chesterton, Muriel Spark, and Radclyffe Hall, the poet and novelist.
Attracted by this rackety lot, I threw my net wider and came up with some expected converts – Anne of Cleeves was one. But in the list were also some rather off the wall individuals – the cowboy Buffalo Bill came over on his death bed. The frontiersman Kit Carson converted in the 1840s at the age of 34 or so… that must have been quite something, considering he was also a Mason and the Masonic Lodge in Santa Fe is named after him.
Royalty makes for great conversion stories as well. Queen Sofia of Spain joined when she married King Juan Carlos; Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated her throne and left her country when she entered the Church of Rome; more recently, a whole slew of the Duke of Kent’s family, including his wife, the Duchess, his son, Lord Nicholas Windsor, and his grandson, Edward Windsor, Lord Downpatrick.
I have always wondered about the courage and the commitment required by conversion to any faith. One has to abandon the beliefs of before, and take on those of the one to be embraced. When I was spending a lot of time researching a particular book, I think it was my mother’s greatest fear that I would convert to the faith it centred on. How could I abandon one, I asked, with all its glories and its oddities, for another whose oddities I would have to accept without reservation to enter into it wholeheartedly? Her relief was palpable, though her suspicions remain.
But if someone wanted to convert to Catholicism now, where would they start? There are various avenues, beginning with the Catholic Enquiry Centre. The Centre has just produced a book, Call and Response An Introduction to the Catholic Faith, which gives chapter and verse on what Catholics believe in language which is easy and a tone which is approachable.
This book a good place to begin a journey which has been undertaken by seekers such as musicians Offenbach and Johann Christian Bach, painter Peter Paul Reubens, actors Faye Dunawaye and John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, and the philosopher and nun Edith Stein. There is no guarantee that like Edith, or America’s first native-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton (another convert), your name will be entered into the Canon of Saints by a pope and that should not be the aim… but the journey to canonisation begins with a small step. Just ask the Bl Cardinal Newman.
Christine Hogan is the Communications Manager for Church Resources, and moderates the sometime immoderate discussion boards of CathNews.
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