My Path to Rome

IAN HUNTER

The story of my conversion is the story of four men: Pope John Paul II, my father (albeit, an unwitting guide), C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. It is the story of the Church's decision to publish a comprehensive Catechism of the Christian faith, and of a priest willing to go beyond the requirements of his office to fetch one lost sheep out of the wilderness. It is the story of faithful Catholics who prayed. And above all, first, last, and always, it is the same old story that it always is – a story of God's grace and forgiveness and love. Deo gratias.

It is difficult to write objectively about something as intensely personal as conversion; I recognize also that my own conversion is but one case among many, but since it is the one I know best, it is what I shall try here to explain.

Let me dare to begin with a question that perhaps should best come last: What is the alternative to conversion? Except what G. K. Chesterton, writing of his own conversion, called a sorry surrender to "...the awful actualities of our time?" I came to believe that there is no answer, except Rome, to that question.

Still it is legitimate to ask why someone, in the sixth decade of his life, with more of life behind than ahead of him, would abandon his denomination and the liturgies and traditions with which he is familiar, for the remote, somewhat intimidating vastness of Rome. In short, why become a Roman Catholic?

Well, all such stories are long ones, and just as aspects of one's human birth remain mysterious, so also aspects of one's spiritual rebirth, perhaps opaque beyond human explanation. But here is what I know. My conversion story is, in part, the story of four men, only two of whom were Catholics.

But before I tell you about the part played by these four men, let me say something about how I experienced the mechanics of becoming a Roman Catholic.

I first tried the RCIA program a few years ago at a London Catholic church and I found that experience quite disillusioning. At the first meeting there were a handful of people (mostly young girls taking instruction because they were engaged to Catholic boys), and the course leader, an extremely friendly woman whose purpose, so far as I could discern, was to make us understand just how very special and wonderful each one of us really and truly was; soon, she said, we would become "really, really close" and there was much group hugging – at least metaphorically – but little instruction on matters of Catholic doctrine. Needless to say, the word "dogma" was never used. Now since I had gone to learn more about Catholic dogma, I found the leader's forced intimacies embarrassing, the pabulum offered un­nourishing, and the absence of discussion unsatisfactory.

After going to a few of the weekly sessions, I dropped out; when I was attending I noted that on the rare occasions when Catholic doctrine was mentioned, it was usually misstated (using the Catechism of the Catholic Church – itself never mentioned – as the standard), or deferred. So if a difficult question was raised, say, about Catholic teaching on marriage or purgatory, the response would be: "Oh, we'll get to that." Then we would be reassured again how close, how intimate, how loving, we all were; I confess that I left the group before any such intimacy could flourish.

By the spring of 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying in Rome, I had moved to St. Thomas, Ontario, and I went to the main street gothic Catholic Church, Holy Angels, to pray for the Pope in what were clearly his last days on earth.

On the actual day that he died, a Saturday (April 2, 2005) there was an afternoon mass at Holy Angels and I went. The grief among the congregation was palpable. But to my astonishment, the priest carried on as though nothing whatever had happened; only when he came to the prayers of the people did he mention in passing that since the Holy Father had just died, we would be skipping the prayer for the Pope. Otherwise, nothing. When the announcements came, we were reminded of an upcoming potluck dinner and other social events, but not a word to assuage the shared grief that was palpable in the congregation; then we were dismissed, orphaned as I thought, into the night.

I was not then a Catholic. But I considered John Paul II the brightest light in the dark times through which I had lived my life, and, on that day, I expected more. "Never again will I enter this church," I muttered through clenched teeth on the way out the door. But, as often happens, God had other plans.


Which brings me to the first of four men responsible for my becoming a Catholic, by name Karol Wojtyla, a relatively obscure Polish Cardinal who astonished the world when on October 16, 1978 he stepped out on the balcony at St. Peter's, announced his new identity as Pope John Paul II, and declared in a dozen or more languages: "Be not afraid... Open the doors to Jesus Christ!"

In that sense I suppose that I am what might be called "a JP II Catholic"; if so, I am honoured to be called after a man I so much admire. Without the papacy of John Paul II, I doubt I would have been drawn so inexorably to the Roman Catholic Church.

In that sense I suppose that I am what might be called "a JP II Catholic"; if so, I am honoured to be called after a man I so much admire. Without the papacy of John Paul II, I doubt I would have been drawn so inexorably to the Roman Catholic Church.

Within a year of John Paul II becoming Pope, I wrote a feature profile for a Canadian newspaper; I concluded it with these words:

"Who could have foreseen that in so little time the strongest voice in the Western world would be that of a man uniquely qualified by personal experience to speak to both halves of a world split asunder?"

A year later, on the Pope's first U.S. visit, he met President Jimmy Carter at the White House; at that time I wrote of the strange contrast between the two men: "...the Pope four years older than the President but exuding virility and integrity, a man at peace with himself, and the President, anxiety, uncertainty and indecision written in the lines across his face...."

I went on: "This Pope speaks to the people of eternal verities, truths that in their hearts they know to be true however much they might twist and turn and seek to evade them. Unpalatable truths, articles of faith in an era of rationality, hard sayings in respectable liberal circles, truths that have become particularly embarrassing when it is not only the emperor but all his subjects who have no clothes on. But truths for all that, the kind that sears the conscience and finds an understanding and assent that is more instinctual than intellectual."

With growing admiration, I watched John Paul II discharge the duties of his office, including his worldwide pilgrimages – especially the triumphant homecoming to Poland. Wherever he went, I noticed how he confounded the ecumenists and pluralists. He appeared always cheerful; he listened attentively, he exuded warmth and compassion. But his words were blunt and uncompromising, so much so that they startled even those like me who had longed to hear such things said: "Do not be afraid of the truth." "Human life is forever," he said. On the ordination of women? No. On abortion: No. On marriage: Indissoluble. On celibacy: Yes. On priestly vows: Forever. This was a man who clearly knew his faith and his mind and was not afraid to speak unequivocally about either.

The main reason why Pope John Paul II was so significant in my conversion is that without his pontificate I doubt that I would have wrestled with the ecclesiological claims that the Roman Catholic Church makes. Ecclesiology might seem an arcane subject, but for me it was pivotal. Yet nothing in my family background or upbringing would have prompted me to reflect on it. Just the opposite, in fact.


"They taught me that there is nothing – nothing at all for one's attention – that may be compared to the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord. They instilled in me the immense gravity of this matter, that to obey and serve God must swallow up all other contenders."

This brings me to the second influential man in my story, my father. My father, James Hogg Hunter, was born in 1890 in Maybole, Scotland – in the Covenanting district of Scotland where men and women died as martyrs to the Protestant faith. Two of my father's novels (How Sleep the Brave [1955] and The Hammer of God [1965 ]) are about the persecution of Scottish Covenanters. My father was a Presbyterian and among his bedrock beliefs was the conviction that Rome was the enemy of the Christian faith. It is difficult to communicate today the depth and sincerity of his conviction.

My father immigrated to Canada in the early part of the twentieth century, and he spent the next six decades engaged in Christian journalism, primarily as Editor of a monthly magazine called "The Evangelical Christian." In its pages he denounced "...Popery in all its forms" and, as he put it "...sought to expose the shams and deceits of this 'Mystery of Iniquity', the Roman Catholic Church."

The zenith of my father's anti­Catholic polemics was his 1945 book, The Great Deception, a book that would be banned today as hate literature. Lest you think I exaggerate, here is a taste of what lies within its covers; I quote here from the Preface:

"There are people who know little of the history and the dark deeds of this system [Roman Catholicism], this mystery of iniquity that has stood through the centuries, not because it was founded on the Rock of Ages, but because it is part of the inscrutable permissive will of God. Why God should have suffered this gigantic imposture to continue is not for us to discuss or explain, any more than it is ours to account for the religion of Mohammedanism or any other of the many false cults and religions that abound in the world. We believe with the Reformers that the rise, history and doom of the Roman Catholic Church are set forth in the Book of Revelation, and that when the hour of God strikes it will be destroyed. It is not the saving Gospel of sovereign grace that is set forth by the Church of Rome, but a travesty of that great truth; not the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ but that of the antiChrist; not the faith once delivered to the saints, but a caricature of that faith – a deep and awful delusion that is ruining souls."

I quote that passage ruefully, not to mock or disparage my father, a fine and dear Christian man whom I loved, but rather to demonstrate how broad the chasm it was necessary for me to cross in order to come to Rome. Yet, when I consider who played a part in my decision, my father is near the top of the list, and I'll tell you why: he took religion seriously. In fact, his faith was the most important thing in his life. For him Christianity was not a convenience but a life creed; attending church was not a social outing but an opportunity to worship in the presence of Almighty God; religion was not a subject for social chatter, but a life­changing commitment.

I had already written that when I came across this passage by Thomas Howard, like me a late convert to Catholicism, who came from a similar protestant evangelical background; Howard writes:

...it is to Protestant Fundamentalism, ironically, that I owe my having at last found my way into the Church, for it was the Fundamentalists, most notably my father and mother, who taught me the apostolic faith. They taught me that there is nothing – nothing at all for one's attention – that may be compared to the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord. They instilled in me the immense gravity of this matter, that to obey and serve God must swallow up all other contenders. And they taught me, I think, that the peace and order both in one's inner man and in one's household that follow upon such obedience and service, are a treasure to be desired and sought most sedulously. Everything else is ultimately illusionary, fugitive, and perfidious. (On Being Catholic, Ignatius Press, 1997, p. 11)

Because he took his faith seriously, because it was the defining feature and centre of my father's life, I wonder sometimes what – had he lived to survey the ruins of Protestantism, where mainline Churches like the Anglican and United Church compete in bringing ridicule upon the faith he cherished – he would have done; given this sorry spectacle, might he not have made a similar pilgrimage to Rome? I wonder, but can never know.

So I have told you about two of the influences on my conversion: Pope John Paul II and my father.


The third influence was a man who did not himself become a Roman Catholic, C. S. Lewis. All my Christian life I have been reading and learning from C. S. Lewis' books; particularly to pick three – Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, and The Great Divorce.

The distinguished American novelist, Walker Percy, once remarked on the countless converts who had come to Catholicism through the writings of C. S. Lewis: Walker Percy wrote: "....[in stories told by Catholic converts] writers one might expect, from Aquinas to Merton, turn up. But guess who turns up most often? C. S. Lewis."

Yet Lewis himself never converted; he lived, and died (in November 1963) a lifelong Anglican.

In 1999, Joseph Pearce wrote a book called Literary Converts, a study of the veritable stampede to Rome of English authors and intellectuals in the twentieth century; men like G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Malcolm Muggeridge. I reviewed Literary Converts when it came out and nominated it as the best Christian book of the year. More recently, Pearce wrote another book, this one called C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, and I reviewed that too. In this book, Pearce tries to find the answer to the Lewis paradox; namely, why has C. S. Lewis influenced so many Catholic converts and yet never himself become a Catholic?

Despite Pearce's diligent research, and his insightful and balanced reflections, the answer, I believe, eludes him. Pearce's answer – that Lewis was never able to shake off his virulently antiCatholic Belfast upbringing – I consider unconvincing. I know that kind of upbringing: I experienced something not altogether different myself. It is an obstacle, unquestionably, but not an insurmountable one.

I believe that the answer is much simpler: in the nineteen forties, fifties and early sixties, when Lewis lived and his influence was at its height, it was still possible to regard the Church of England (particularly in its Anglo­Catholic manifestations) as part of that "...one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" that all Christians, when they recite the Nicene Creed, profess to believe in.

I believe now that anyone who reads and understands Lewis is on the path to Rome.

Today, such a belief requires self­deception, or at least wilful blindness. In his time, Lewis was spared the spectacle of what the Anglican Church has become, with Bishop Michael Ingham devising rites for same­sex unions, while New Hampshire Bishop Vicki Gene Robinson abandons his wife and children to take up with a homosexual lover. In short, in C. S. Lewis' time, the Anglican Church was not yet the self­parody it has become.

Walter Hooper, Lewis' confidante, editor and biographer, sometime Anglican priest, and most assiduous keeper of the Lewis flame, in 1988 converted to Catholicism. He believes, and has said publicly, that Lewis would do likewise were he alive today. And Lewis' long­time friend, Christopher Derrick, said in 1996: "It's difficult to imagine what Lewis would make of today's Church of England. The Church of England is such a pathetic ghost nowadays ...You can't agree with it or disagree with it. There's just nothing there."

If C. S. Lewis were alive today, he would almost certainly be a Roman Catholic. That is the short answer – and, I believe, the most convincing answer – to the Lewis paradox. When I discovered that I believed that, then my last feeble justification for remaining an Anglican – "If it was good enough for C. S. Lewis, then it's good enough for me" – was gone. I believe now that anyone who reads and understands Lewis is on the path to Rome.


And so I come to the last, and perhaps most important influence, Malcolm Muggeridge.

In 1966, when I was a law student at U. of T. law school and should have been spending my time immersed in statutes, regulations and cases in the law library, I was more often ensconced in the periodical stacks at Central Library reading Malcolm Muggeridge's prolific journalism.

I had stumbled across Muggeridge quite by chance and was at first struck by his eloquent, wry, effortlessly readable prose, so clear, pungent, and often devastating. His sceptical mind and loathing for cant were a welcome purgative to the academic conversations going on all around me.

I soon exhausted what Muggeridge was available in print. Next came out­of­print books through inter­library loans. Then, via the Index to Periodical Literature, I began working my way backwards through the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s, 1930s, even into the 1920s, via back numbers of the Guardian, the New Statesman, Time and Tide, and other periodicals. In my third year of law school, I could have answered any question concerning Muggeridge; unfortunately, these were scarce, the examiners preferring instead to test my shaky knowledge of close corporations or the remoter slopes of the Income Tax Act.

I first met Malcolm in the autumn of 1968, when he came to Toronto to give a lecture at the St. Lawrence Centre. On this occasion, I asked him about a short story he had written in India in the early twenties. At first, he barely remembered it, then he said: "Nobody has mentioned that story to me in 50 years! Now we really must talk." He went on to tell me how he had sent such early stories to Mahatma Gandhi who had published them in his newspaper, Young India. Thereupon, Malcolm and I fell into real conversation, and then correspondence, which continued, pretty much uninterrupted, until his death in 1990.

The same year we met, Muggeridge published Jesus Rediscovered, which became an immediate, unlikely bestseller; all of his books from then on dealt with religious themes, including Something Beautiful for God, the book that brought Mother Teresa to worldwide attention.

In 1978–79, Muggeridge and I swapped houses, and that year I lived in his house in Sussex where I wrote the first biography of Muggeridge. Central to the book was charting his religious pilgrimage, from a Fabian socialist upbringing to his reception, at age 80, into the Roman Catholic Church.

When I asked him why, he replied: "The day will come, dear boy, when you must decide whether to die within the Church or outside the Church. I have decided to die within the Church."

"Rome, sweet Rome, be you never so sinful, there's no place like Rome." So, mockingly, Muggeridge had written in the mid­seventies. Yet on November 27, 1982, Muggeridge knelt at the altar of a little chapel in the Sussex village of Hurst Green and was received into the Catholic Church. When I asked him why, he replied: "The day will come, dear boy, when you must decide whether to die within the Church or outside the Church. I have decided to die within the Church."

From the day that Malcolm Muggeridge became a Catholic, I thought more seriously of conversion. I remembered how difficult Malcolm's struggle had been and how Mother Teresa had written telling him to submerge his hesitations in Christ's unbounded love. I especially remembered one of her letters to him; let me quote it:

You are to me like Nicodemus '...unless you become as a little child' ...I am sure that you will understand beautifully everything if you would only become a little child in God's hands. The small difficulty you have regarding the Church is finite. Overcome the finite with the infinite...

So, I have now told you of the four most important, albeit four of many, influences on my decision to convert: Pope John Paul II, my father, C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. But let me return now to the mechanics, how to get into the Church, particularly for someone like me who is divorced.


A few years ago, a Catholic friend gave me a copy of the then recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church; I was impressed by the depth and eloquence of its proclamation of the Christian faith. This was the faith I affirmed, but which I considered that my own Church no longer did. I wanted to belong to a Church that published such a splendid statement of Christian orthodoxy. Despite the disillusioning experience at the Mass on the day of the Pope's death, it was borne in upon me that Rome was my spiritual home. But what was I to do now? I had tried the RCIA route; it was not for me and I knew of no other way in.

This brings my narrative to late 2005. I had not been attending any Church for some time, when suddenly the conviction overwhelmed me that I could not properly celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas if I did not worship on the preceding Sundays of Advent. Don't ask me why I was so suddenly convinced of that, I just was. So, on the first Sunday of Advent, expecting another dispiriting experience, I trudged to mass at Holy Angels, the same Catholic Church where I had been disillusioned.

To my surprise, there was a new priest. To my even greater surprise, his homily was directed straight at me. His text was "Come out of the wilderness," and he said something like this: "People experience many kinds of wilderness. There may be someone here who is in a Church wilderness, someone who cannot find a Church to belong to, or perhaps who has found the Church but it is the Church to which he cannot belong. To that person Jesus says: 'Come out of the wilderness.'"

Let me state the position I was in as simply as possible: I came to believe that there is no source of authority outside the Roman Catholic Church. I could abandon the Christian faith, which had nourished me since childhood, or I could submit to and seek membership in the Church which, as St. Paul expresses it "...has the mind of Christ."

The next day, Monday, without calling in advance and without an appointment, I knocked on his door at the Rectory and told him I was the person in the wilderness that he had been referring to. Father Adam Gabriel, (for such is his apt name – and a messenger of God, like his namesake, he has been!) listened to my story and told me about the RCIA program. I told him my past experience with the RCIA. He said that he regretted that he could not give me private instruction, but that Holy Angels is a large, busy parish and he is the only priest; the demands on his time are punishing. Then he noticed that I had brought along my copy of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church and he asked me if I had read it? I said that I had. Then he said: "OK. If you are serious enough to have read the Catechism, I'll make the time to give you instruction." And so, over the next year, he did. He also dealt – quietly, thoroughly and effectively – with the other (matrimonial) obstacles to my admission. Needless to say, I owe Father Gabriel an immense debt of gratitude.

So, on July 2, 2006, I was received into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church, returning not – definitely not as I have explained – to the religion of my father, but perhaps to the religion of my father's fathers.


Looking back now, I see that three considerations became of paramount importance to me: Rome's authority, historicity, and universality. But more even than these considerations, I came to believe not just that truth is to be found within Rome but – something quite different – that in a unique way, the truth is Rome. Incidentally, from within Rome's embrace I did not expect modernity to appear any more comely, but perhaps more bearable. And so it has proved.

Unlike much of Protestantism, Rome is innately suspicious of feelings and enthusiasms; still, the predominant feeling on the day of my reception was of a home­coming, of responding to a bell that I had long heard toll, of taking my place at a table that had long been set, of finding spiritual companionship among those unashamed to profess the faith of the fathers.

I have left the Church of my adulthood – the Anglican Church – with mixed emotions; the Anglican ideal, which sought to incorporate the best of the Reformation into Catholicism, still seems to me a worthy – if today unnecessary – goal.

Spiritually, I was nourished by Anglican liturgy, particularly that masterpiece of literature and worship, the Book of Common Prayer; alas, Anglicans today have abandoned the Book of Common Prayer, putting in its place liturgies each one more banal, trite, and politically–correct than its predecessor. Anyway, the more one becomes immersed in the Book of Common Prayer, its thirty–nine Articles, its history, liturgy, and theology, the more inexorably one is drawn to Rome. This is why John Henry Newman memorably described Anglicanism as "...the halfway house on the road to Rome."

I loved, too, the splendid Anglican hymnody, and would be sorry to leave it had it not also been "revised" almost beyond recognition.

I left with nothing but contempt for what passes for Anglican "leadership," particularly its Bishops, and many of its clerics, those without seeming conviction about matters of doctrine, although erupting regularly with predictable pronouncements about certain social issues; they are "men without chests" (C. S. Lewis' term) when it comes to defending the Christian faith, ministers who have depleted their spiritual patrimony in the vain hope of appearing progressive. By contrast, I have noticed that Rome does not alter its message to suit shifting fashions, nor tailor its doctrine, however persistent or clamorous the public outcry against it may be.

I discovered too that I had grown to believe that only Rome can trace a direct line to the Church's rock, St. Peter. It was to St. Peter, after all, and to his descendants, that our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail. Against most Churches, the gates of Hell seem to be prevailing very well. Only the Roman Catholic Church, the repository of teaching and traditions that date to our Lord's first disciples, "...the unmoved spectator of the thousand phases and fashions that have passed over our restless world" (to use Ronald Knox's elegant phrase), has the history, the guts, the inner wherewithal, to survive a postmodern age. Rome's claim to speak with authority in matters of faith and morals is the last refuge, or so I now believe, against the all­corrosive acid of postmodernism.

Let me state the position I was in as simply as possible: I came to believe that there is no source of authority outside the Roman Catholic Church. I could abandon the Christian faith, which had nourished me since childhood, or I could submit to and seek membership in the Church which, as St. Paul expresses it "...has the mind of Christ." But there was, for me, no longer any middle ground left.

That doughty old warrior, Hilaire Belloc, once wrote to a friend that the Catholic Church was like a landfall at sea, at first glimpsed hazily and only through the mist: "...but the nearer it is seen, the more it is real, the less imaginary: the more direct and external its voice, the more indisputable its representative character ... The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home. 'This was what I long sought', they say. 'This was my need'."

I owe also a special debt to Catholics, many unknown to me, whom I have since discovered had been praying for my reception, some for a long time. Such prayers flood the universe with light. I also acknowledge a Christian reading group to which I have long belonged; in those long droughts when my Church provided little spiritual nourishment ("The hungry sheep look up and are not fed," I used to mutter through clenched teeth on innumerable Sunday mornings), I was invariably fed by these, my Christian brothers.

So, the story of my conversion is the story of four men: Pope John Paul II, my father (albeit, an unwitting guide), C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. It is the story of the Church's decision to publish a comprehensive Catechism of the Christian faith, and of a priest willing to go beyond the requirements of his office to fetch one lost sheep out of the wilderness. It is the story of faithful Catholics who prayed. And above all, first, last, and always, it is the same old story that it always is – a story of God's grace and forgiveness and love. Deo gratias. [2006]

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Ian Hunter. "My Path to Rome." That Time of Year: The Best of Ian Hunter (Ottawa, ON: Justin Press): 16–31.

Reprinted by permission of the author, Ian Hunter and Justin Press.

THE AUTHOR

Ian Hunter holds degrees in political science (B.A.) and law (L.L.B and J.D.) from the University of Toronto. From 1974 to 1996 he was a Professor of Law at Western University: he also taught at other Canadian and English Universities, and was a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Cambridge. At Western University, Professor Hunter was awarded the University's Gold Medal for Teaching Excellence. He is the author of several books, including a bestselling biography of Malcolm Muggeridge Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life. He is a frequent columnist in the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

Copyright © 2010 Justin Press




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