The New Catholic
The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories
By Dan O'Neill
Pages: 187 pages
Review Author: L. Brent Bozell
A newly baptized Catholic naturally tantalizes the world with the question of where he was before he took the plunge; these stories told by recent Catholic converts understandably dwell on the histories of their conversions. They do it well — although, and unavoidably, repetitiously. But far more interesting than the question of where the new Catholic was is that of where he is going.
There is the strongest tendency — too strong in this book — toward docility in identifying the authors’ personal goals. Having said that, let me retract it. What I mean to say is that the converts’ endearing modesty in the presence of the Holy Spirit — everything is now in God’s hands — would be enhanced by explicit avowals of where the Holy Spirit seems to be pointing them. Enhanced, because it is sure that God’s purpose in giving these talented men and women the gift of the fullness of the faith was to use them in specific, concrete ways to glorify him: ways that his mercy will have at least hinted at.
I have also overstated this last contention. Sometimes the Holy Spirit does not give, for a while, even the smallest hint of what you are supposed to do. I think of my own conversion when I was 20. Like many of the authors here, I had been an Anglican. My single reason for converting was disbelief in the validity of Anglican orders; when I became a Catholic, I did not see the need to change anything else in my life.
The reason The New Catholics makes such good reading is that each essay gives an invitation to probe the convert’s destiny in the deepest matters of his life. While these converts come from a wide variety of backgrounds, they all, in a sense, pick the route of the Anglican “pilgrim” in Walker Percy’s Foreword, who “turns away from the spires soaring above empty cathedrals in the gracious countryside and takes the road to downtown, bustling St. Agnes’s where, lovely or not, the Lord is housed.” But St. Agnes has led — or will lead — them to different places. For instance, “A Wink of Heaven” swooped James J. Thompson Jr. from the Seventh-Day Adventist world of “the three R’s of Religion, Righteousness, and Republicanism (of the Barry Goldwater variety)” to the poor sinner’s world of Graham Greene — indeed, Thompson’s essay gives the impression that he is now abandoned more than most to the power of The Power and the Glory.
Sheldon Vanauken’s essay is historical, theological, and anglophile — and he is found at one point “shuddering…at the commonness of the Catholic Church.” But Vanauken has shown the intriguing initiative of writing two books on mercy, probable monuments, which I have been too lazy to read, and has done the mercy of generously shepherding into the faith a young man it seems the Holy Spirit sent to him. “The Search for a Shepherd (Jeremiah 23:4)” is Floyd Newman’s testimony both to the Lord’s “severe mercy” and to Vanauken’s skill and heart as an assistant.
Dom Eugene Boylan wrote a book called This Tremendous Lover. I may one day write a book called This Tempestuous Lover and cite as evidence what this lover did to most of these new Catholics. One could argue that Newman’s anguish was mild compared to the bristling hard times the lover gave to Jean M.L. Rossner (“Further Up and Further In”), Celia Wolf-Devine (“From New Age Christianity to the Catholic Church”), John Michael Talbot (“On Becoming a Radical for Christ”), Peter K. Weiskel (“Drawn to the Sacramental Mysteries”), Judy Valentine Gerth (“The Persistence of the Paraclete”), John C. Cort (“A Bizarre Conversion”), and others. This tempestuous lover has a way of being both mysterious as to why he kicks up a fuss at this or that moment — and un-mysterious as to where he wishes the love eventually to go.
One of the converts, Thomas Howard, concludes his essay with the flat statement, “I am still Anglican”; yet there is an editor’s note at its beginning which says Howard became a Catholic in 1985. An earthly explanation, to be sure, exists. But I offer the spiritual one that possibly the Lord wanted to draw special attention to the man who had begun his essay with a moving account of a congress he attended in Thailand in 1980 on world evangelization. That account shows where he was going, and although the congress was not a Catholic affair, you might say that it foreshadowed the Anglican Howard’s tribute to the Roman Church: “I mean the sheer splendor of the Roman Catholic vision. It is immense. It is full of glory. It is unsupportably bright. But not only this: it is present, in the Mass.”
“Coming to Know the Mercy of God” by Jim Forest is the story of a peace activist who has found this to be “one of the great ages of reformation in Christianity…especially true for the Catholic Church…. There is a more compassionate climate, more emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation…recognition not only of private sin but public sin, the evils we do in defense of wealth or in the grip of collective fear or hatred.” Then the last, which I especially wish were true: “Most of all, it has become a Church much more emphatic about what Jesus said is the final measure of his judgment: ‘I was hungry and you fed me…what you did for the least person you did for me.'”
Fr. James Parker’s account is of how he became a Roman Catholic priest with his marriage recognized. The entry by Parker and several other married Episcopal priests into the Church was presided over by then Bishop (now Cardinal-Archbishop) Bernard Law. It followed on the judgment, according to Parker, that, “We were no longer morally justified in being out of communion with the successor of Peter.” Or, as Thomas W. Case (“The Real Thing”) puts it, “There is no fully Christian church but the one that was there from the beginning….”
Elena M. Vree and Dale Vree became Catholics together in 1983. It is a good thing for two, who are one, to do together. In her personal history, Elena writes twice of extra-intellectual involvements with Christ. She “sensed the Bridegroom beckoning to me” at one point; at another, “I felt the presence of Christ” during Catholic worship. And while an Episcopalian, “I lacked the authority of the Church and the Church’s concern and love for the poor” — another way of not feeling Christ. The Catholic Church “draws this humanity to herself just as Christ draws us all to himself,” she says. Then: “The event that brought me to the realization that I should become a Roman Catholic was the election of the current pope.”
Dale, also a quiet one, had sensed for some time the spiritual territory he was chosen to occupy. His quietness could be attributed to his experience of learning hard. In this case, what he learned a good way along in his life was that the Roman Catholic Church already occupied the spiritual territory that was his: “the more I studied the Roman Catholic magisterium, the more I realized that it was offering what I had been looking for all along, that essentially it taught the unusual mix of convictions — socially Left, theologically Right — I had carried with me since boyhood.” In a sense, then, where Elena and Dale Vree have been is where they are going.
Cherry Boone O’Neill and Dan O’Neill became Catholics together in 1981. Cherry is Pat Boone’s daughter and a songwriter. She followed Dan into the Church, as Dan followed the counsel of Bishop Law. But neither Dan nor Law match the depths she strikes in a song she wrote shortly after the conversion, called “The Family Reunion.” The lyrics end this book. They could be called “Solidarity.”
But Dan is the hero of this book, for my money. For one thing, he is its editor, and so the one man, if any, who has responsibility for the estimable whole. But beyond that, he is showing here — and has been for eight years — where the non-Catholic Christianity of his past has taken him. It is to mercy. Dan is the head of Mercy Corps International, an ecumenical relief and development agency assisting the world’s poor.
I am a feeble fan of mercy who does not know the O’Neills. I am therefore one of their poor. But this whole book, I am saying, is a way to get “rich.”
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When the Mass was translated into English, I noticed right away how often it says “Peace”: it’s repeated over and over again, like a heartbeat, clear through.
My father was so upset that he wrote an angry letter to the Dean of Harvard and told me that if I insisted on being received into the Church he would insist on withdrawing me from Harvard.
Newman expressed negative views about a corporate reunion between Anglicans and Catholics; he valued real conversions more than such far-fetched schemes.