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Converts and the symphony of truth


Why do adults become Catholics?

There are as many reasons for "converting" as there are converts. Evelyn Waugh became a Catholic with, by his own admission, "little emotion but clear conviction": this was the truth; one ought to adhere to it. Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote that his journey into the Catholic Church began when, as an unbelieving Harvard undergraduate detached from his family's staunch Presbyterianism, he noticed a leaf shimmering with raindrops while taking a walk along the Charles River in Cambridge, such beauty could not be accidental, he thought--there must be a Creator. Thomas Merton found Catholicism aesthetically, as well as intellectually, attractive: once the former Columbia free-thinker and dabbler in communism and Hinduism found his way into a Trappist monastery and became a priest, he explained the Mass to his unconverted friend, poet Robert Lax, by analogy to a ballet. Until his death in 2007, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger insisted that his conversion to Catholicism was not a rejection of, but a fulfillment of, the Judaism into which he was born; the cardinal could often be found at Holocaust memorial services reciting the names of the martyrs, including "Gisele Lustiger, ma maman" ("my mother").

Two of the great 19th-century converts were geniuses of the English language: theologian John Henry Newman and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. This tradition of literary converts continued in the 20th century, and included Waugh, Graham Greene, Edith Sitwell, Ronald Knox and Walker Percy. Their heritage lives today at Our Savior's Church on Park Avenue in New York, where convert, author, wit, raconteur and amateur pugilist George William Rutler presides as pastor.

In early American Catholicism, the fifth archbishop of Baltimore (and de facto primate of the United States), Samuel Eccleston, was a convert from Anglicanism, as was the first native-born American saint and the precursor of the Catholic school system, Elizabeth Anne Seton. Mother Seton's portrait in the offices of the archbishop of New York is somewhat incongruous, as the young widow Seton, with her children, was run out of New York by her unforgiving Anglican in-laws when she became a Catholic. On his deathbed, another great 19th-century convert, Henry Edward Manning of England, who might have become the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury but became the Catholic archbishop of Westminster instead, took his long-deceased wife's prayer book from beneath his pillow and gave it to a friend, saying that it had been his spiritual inspiration throughout his life.

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