What attracts converts to the Catholic Church?

What attracts converts to the Catholic Church?

Fr F.E. Burns

Soon after former playboy and famous Hollywood actor (of High Noon fame), Gary Cooper, converted to Catholicism, he declared to a longtime friend, the noted author Ernest Hemingway, "that was the best decision I ever made."

Cooper's daughter Maria tells how her father and Hemingway frequently discussed "the Catholic thing" and, although he had always been well disposed towards the Church, and frequently attended Mass with the family, he never discussed it with them.

But prior to his requesting Baptism in 1958, Cooper had read extensively, particularly the writings of Thomas Merton, and had also become very impressed with the preaching of a young priest in his local parish.

Fr Harold Ford was a down to earth tell-it-as-it-is type, who appealed to Gary Cooper, who not only liked listening to him, but got to know him well, renaming him "Fr Tough Stuff", reflecting the fact that his homilies left listeners in no doubt as to the challenge of the Gospel, or the Church's role as teacher.

This quality of teaching with authority, especially when the subject is demanding, has always been a feature of authentic Catholicism, and one that has a curious long term appeal, far more than playing to the crowd with soft options.

I recall from my seminary days a series of guest speakers, converts to the Faith, referring to this refusal by the Church to compromise on issues it saw as the truth, in spite of pressure to do so, and against popular opinion. These included ex-communist Douglas Hyde, author and actor Robert Speight, and war hero Leonard Cheshire VC, as well as Malcolm Muggeridge, who rather forcefully made fun of those theologians of all religions who presented us with a modified and much more comfortable moral code.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with searching for 'an easier way' on any challenging issue, especially if there is one. But history does reveal any number of failed attempts to discover, or create, a painless path to God: a type of Christianity without a Cross.

This is frequently done in the name of "modernising" the Church, or bringing us into the 21st century, almost as if Our Lord had instructed the Church to keep pace with popular social mores. Surely the Lord's call was to influence people to His Way, rather than accommodate the Church to theirs.

When are these disputed questions ever settled? When can we rule off the page and move on, whether or not the outcome appeals to us?

Pope John Paul declared the Church had "no authority whatsoever" to ordain women ( Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994) yet the topic is still alive for some. A recent plea in Victoria for the Church to update its position on divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, etc., actually seemed to be more a revisiting of the early 1970s, when these and other topics were aired repeatedly "in the Spirit of Vatican II", and dealt with again and again by the Church.

Is not the Church which Our Lord founded Apostolic of its nature, with a teaching Magisterium, not a democracy? The human element of the Church, from the time of the Apostles themselves, has been, and always will be, a problem. Humans are just that, human. In regard to administration, people skills, consultation, or lack of it, there can be plenty to criticise; and while it is understandable, in some cases it does far more harm than good.

In the less serious - though still important - matter of the new changes to the English wording of the Mass it is disappointing to read of resistance, and even reluctance to implement the new order. Obviously these changes (or any others) will have shortcomings, but surely the reaction of some who feel they have not been listened to can only contribute to disunity and hurt and confusion for laity and clergy.

Perhaps our Church has become too adversarial. The writer Bernard Bassett once wrote that there are few things worse than good people fighting over good causes, and our Church, which has been so wounded by scandals is much in need of united prayerful, penitential healing. Especially as we live in an age which has been described as the first in history to largely believe in nothing.

In last month's AD2000 there appeared a letter of Mark Twain's in which he referred to Catholicism as "doubtless the most peace-giving and restful of all religions". And he added: "If I had it, I would not trade it for anything on earth." This quote has long been a favourite of mine, because it is a beautiful thought. But more importantly it is a wonderful illustration of how attitudes can be changed.

Mark Twain's early journal articles reveal a deep hostility to Catholicism, as do his Innocents Abroad and Connecticut Yankee. But years of honest observation of the Church around the world, plus reading about and eventually writing Joan Of Arc ("the best of all my books"), produced a dramatic change of heart. At the same time although Twain never lost his irritability for what he saw as human failings in churchmen, including their petty disagreements, he managed to see past them.

Fr Burns is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

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