How I found the furnace of love of the Catholic Church

  • June 10, 2010
Conversion from a Protestant church to the Catholic Church, such as mine 12 years ago, usually has complicated results. It often makes the people left behind angry and bewildered. So you try to explain what happened, what made conversion necessary and inevitable — only to find quickly that words do nothing to ease the hurt and confusion others feel.

But words and images and gestures are the only things we possess to communicate our experiences to others. So I am using what I have, and will try to put into words what happened to me 12 years ago at the Marian shrine at Lourdes.

I do so because I have been asked, once again, to explain myself. This time the request came from a Christian acquaintance, appalled at the narrative of my conversion that appeared in The Globe and Mail on Holy Saturday. You may recall the op-ed piece. Its occasion was the sex-abuse accusations rocking the Catholic Church. Asked by The Globe whether these shocks had ungrounded my Christian faith, I tried to explain in the article why they had not.

I was obviously unsuccessful, since my acquaintance asked me angrily: What exactly happened at Lourdes? I said in the piece that I had experienced love and compassion at Lourdes to a degree and of a kind I had never before known. To which the acquaintance replied in disbelief: So what was so different about it?

First off, I should say I did not become a Catholic because, as an art and architecture critic for many years, I was infatuated by the Church’s glory in painting, sculpture, music or building. I did not become a Catholic in the summer of 1998, as some people appear to believe, because I was going to work for the National Post, with its Catholic proprietor (Conrad Black) and Catholic senior management.

Rather, I decided to join the Church on the third day of a visit to Lourdes because I witnessed something miraculous. It wasn’t a healing any doctor would recognize as such. I only saw hands everywhere extended to the elderly and infirm, teachers and nurses shepherding their young, severely disabled charges along the paths of that beautiful place, hundreds of intensely attentive volunteers helping the sick in myriad ways, thousands of faces and bodies, many disfigured by disease and suffering, made shining and light by the love that surrounded them on every side.

But if I did not glimpse anything the world considers spectacular, I saw something better: an eruption in time of the timeless Kingdom of God that Jesus lived and died proclaiming.

My recent interrogator was right about one thing: What was going on that day at Lourdes was in no way different from the countless acts of mercy, love and justice in the name of Jesus that happen every other day in Catholic hospitals and schools, on battlefields, in parish churches, in Christian families and circles of friendship throughout the world.

Two things, however, were different about the circumstances.

One was myself. Coming to Lourdes in a time of personal doubt, turmoil and uprooting, I was ready, as I had not been before, to receive the gift of new life God was offering to me.

The second was the immediate location. At Lourdes, I found myself closer than I had ever been in my life to the furnace of love that blazes forever at the heart of the Catholic Church, and that cannot be quenched by anything the Church’s weak, flawed members do or don’t do. I knew in an instant that I wanted to be near this burning centre for the rest of my life, and that joining the Catholic Church in its life and struggles was the first step I had to take to approach that fire.

Though I have been sorrowed by the incomprehension of friends and family at my conversion to Catholicism, I have never regretted taking the immense gift that I was invited that day to embrace as my own.

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