We do not hear as much nowadays as we did in the past about people converting to the Catholic faith - or even about lapsed Catholics returning to the practising fold! Yet there may be a big number of these latter, but this generally happens quietly and is often not publicised, writes James Kelly, SJ.
When we hear about someone, particularly well-known person, who has chosen to return to Catholicism, we readily show interest in the happening and are eager to discover what was decisive in bringing about the change of outlook and attitude, Something had to deeply impress such a person to bring about the marked and total reversal in him/her.
We may be inclined to think that someone could be very influenced by the liturgy, as in participating at a Mass, and as a result feel the need to live in some sense a more solemn way of life. Or again a person may be moved by hymn-singing in church or elsewhere, and by the colour and solemnity of a ceremony and, as a result, long for and acquire a different style of existence! Still there is a big difference between being impressed by something, and then taking that further; in a most profound way, and opting for a very different outlook on life.
A profound religious thinker and writer of over fifty years ago, Romano Guardini, who in his youth became very indifferent to his Catholic faith, wrote about what brought him back to it. A text from the Bible moved him to do so: ‘He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Mt 10.39). That Scripture or even a poignant line from it can bring about a conversion is well known. As Pope Benedict recently said, ‘Scripture is in fact the one and only Word of God that calls our life to conversion". "All divine Scripture is one book", Ugo di San Vittore writes, “and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfilment in Christ" (Papal exhort). Guardini began pondering on what makes life worthwhile. It struck him forcefully that a person could lead a seemingly contented and ordinary life, and that in reality such an existence might not be worthwhile at all! Through this text that there was a criterion for what is valuable in life, and which shows up other viewpoints as empty and deceptive.
He explained the matter this way himself: ‘There exists a law according to which persons "who find their life", that is, remain in themselves and accept as valid only what immediately enlighten them, lose their individuality. lf they want to reach the truth and attain the truth in their very selves, then they must abandon themselves’. If they aim just at immediate delights, they fail to find what is precious. But to whom should they surrender? Guardini rejects that he can do so directly to God — which could mean for him to his own very self! He could easily deceive himself that he was giving himself over to the Almighty, when he was yielding to what he wanted himself. He needed to embrace a clear and definite programme, which was valid outside himself. The only thing he could surrender to was to the Catholic Church. He writes: ‘The question of finding or relinquishing is ultimately decided not in relation to God, but in relation to the Church`.
Why this Solution?
Why did Guardini realise that he had to give himself to the Catholic Church? If he had been familiar with the Buddhist religion, would he have turned to that?This is seeing things out of context. lt was a saying of Jesus that moved him so profoundly, and he was tilted towards the Son of God — to learn about him and to go his way, as far as possible. He felt that he could best do that in the Catholic Church. This would give him the fullness and assurance that he needed.
We can learn from the lives of the saints how other texts made a huge impact on them. St Anthony entered a church when this message was being read; ‘Sell all that you have and give to the poor; and you shall have treasure in heaven and come follow me’ ( Mt 19.21). The impact of this text led him to live as was suggested. Another citation greatly influenced the famous Augustine: ‘Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires’ (Rom 13.13, 14). He accepted that message fully in life.
The matter of conversions greatly interested Guardini. He examined carefully that of St Augustine and in his treatment of Paschal studied how religion gripped him. He sees conversion as a response of the whole person. Embarking on it is something profound. Guardini wrote: ‘It can only be something that seizes a man (or woman) with a life-or-death grip: total orientation to the all demanding God, to Jesus Christ`. It occurs in the moment of ‘God’s self-disclosure to the individual and God`s call for the individual to give his or her entire self over to him'.
We may wonder why these texts don’t seem to concern others so profoundly these days. Many seem to value the present as the all-important, and feel that the distant future is not an issue for them now. All they want are human satisfactions in life, and as long as they obtain these they are happy. They drift along at a human level, and feel there is no need to raise profound or disturbing questions. Their peers see things the same way. Happiness for them has to be found in the here and now, and there is no substitute for this. The Pope issues a word of caution: ‘The spiritual dimension of our lives is fundamental to our identity as human beings`.
Fr. James Kelly, SJ