Joy of conversion

  • July 24, 2008

This summer, I am celebrating the 10th anniversary of my conversion to Catholicism. I didn’t make this turn in the usual, sensible manner, after a suitable period of study and reflection. I didn’t break with Anglicanism, the Christian path I had chosen early in life, because of any disagreement over doctrine or practice. I became a Catholic, as the Godfather movies has it, after getting an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The story began in the late spring of 1998, when I joined the National Post as a roving cultural columnist, with a large travel budget. The paper was months away from launching publication, so I decided to spend the summer travelling and researching topics that interested me, with a view to having some solid stories ready to go.

One of these topics — good for several articles, I thought — was the state of Christian thought and life in Europe. My intention was to speak with church leaders and theologians working for religious revival in the historic heart of Western Christendom. As I worked out my list of European destinations, going to a Marian shrine never crossed my mind.

Then an editor at the Post suggested I visit Lourdes. He argued that, as one of the most popular places of Catholic pilgrimage in the world, it would give me at least one good story. I was sceptical, but I eventually came around and reluctantly added the place to my list of destinations.

I instantly regretted doing so when I arrived at Lourdes in July 1998. The town was a run-down heap of holy-hardware shops stuffed with enormous Day-Glo rosaries and Immaculate Conception ashtrays and other trashy souvenirs. So I resolved to get out of there as soon as possible. And my mind wasn’t changed later that day, when I passed into the very different atmosphere of the shrine itself — a large, lovely and altogether uncommercialized park bisected by the Gave River.

But there were interviews with shrine officials to be done before I could leave. So, next morning, I set about doing them. In a spirit of journalistic thoroughness, I also joined the pilgrims in their various activities, bathing in the waters of the spring where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, marching and singing along in the processions.

After a few days, however, something inside me began to change. Though I didn’t feel any better about the tacky town, the shrine kept drawing me back into itself. A single word — joy — kept coming to mind as I walked around the site and took part in the liturgies: joy at being alive, joy about being in this place at this time, joy in the company of thousands of joyful people. Then, one evening, I met a troupe of mentally challenged children from Northern Ireland rollicking down a hillside in my direction. I asked their attendant, a young teacher in their school, why they were there. She told me she had brought the children because they could be healed at Lourdes — freed from the social stigma of their disorder, liberated to be kids like any other, surrounded by thousands of Christians who loved them and accepted them completely as they were.

I have never been able to find the right words for what happened next. But here’s an attempt: It was as though the whole precinct of the shrine, which was filled with pilgrims, became suddenly incandescent. I felt, as I had never felt in my life, that I was standing in the very furnace of divine love that blazes forever at the centre of the People of God. But this was not some vaguely “spiritual” experience. The shrine and the people there were not evaporated by that stunning light; they remained exactly what they had been. But they held out to me an invitation: Join us in the brilliant river of life, toil and heroism the world knows as the Catholic Church.

The next morning I found a priest and asked to become a Catholic. He correctly advised me to go home and take instruction, but I was having none of it. I persisted. So eventually — perhaps after realizing he was not going to get rid of me — he told me that, if my intention to become a Catholic was sincere, I could take Holy Communion that very day, and I would be one. He then heard my confession, and I went off to do as he suggested.

When I returned to Toronto and presented myself for membership in a Catholic parish community, I was immediately told I had broken half a dozen church rules by taking Communion at Lourdes and that I was to refrain from Communion until I was properly received into the church. These struck me at the time as reasonable reactions — I knew that what I had done must have seemed arrogant and impulsive — and I was confirmed a few months later.

Over the years since Lourdes I have learned a great deal about what it means to be Catholic. I have greatly benefited from the counsel of a wise Toronto priest who has been with me every step of the way. But while I would never advise anyone to follow my example, I have never regretted what happened at Lourdes. I was ambushed by Love, and my divine captor demanded my allegiance at once. I could have refused, of course. But refusal of so great an invitation to life, I believed at the time, would have been the craziest thing in the world to do.

The episode has served to remind me, especially at times of spiritual discouragement, that the Lord continues to perform in our day the greatest of all miracles: the opening of minds and hearts (even stubborn and snobbish ones, like mine) to the Good News that is Jesus.

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