Conversion Stories

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During John Henry Newman’s life many of his friends and readers were deeply influenced by his doctrine and spiritual life which led to their own spiritual growth or conversion. Through his writings and example many became Roman Catholics.

Since Blessed Newman’s death many people who have read and studied his life and work have also had similar experiences. Above all, however, it is contact with Newman as a person, or with any person for that matter, that provides the opportunity for a meaningful influence in our lives.

He thus wrote in the Grammar of Assent:

“The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. A conclusion is but an opinion.”

Here we will publish short accounts of Newman’s influence on people’s lives.

Conversion Stories:

My discovery of John Henry Newman’s life and work went through many years, reaching a peak of intensity in 2011 while doing my Master Project. As an adolescent, I can remember my grandparents and their friend, Monsignor MacIsaac, speaking of John Henry Newman. His name inspired me with a kind of awe though I knew very little about him. Msgr. MacIsaac was a great admirer of Newman.

While teaching English in the Major Seminary of Cordoba, I began reflecting on which English Catholic writers could serve for seminarians. It occurred to me that Newman as a priest and a great writer would be the most appropriate. We started with his sermon, “The Tree Beside the Waters,” in 2007. We translated a few of his poems into Spanish, including “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” and “Lead Kindly Light”. I increasingly admired his way of thinking and his expression.

In 2009 I began a Master in English at the University of Cordoba. We were encouraged to begin deciding and outlining our thesis. In a seminar of English Literature I asked the Dean if he would accept my doing the Master Project on an English writer of my choice. He was delighted after I spoke about the life and work of Newman. Verses on Various Occasions published about 115 poems written during his voyage to the Mediterranean, 1832 to 1833. That Newman was off the coast of Andalucía while writing some of these was a very good incentive.

In September 2010, John Henry Newman was beatified in the city of Birmingham, England. My daughter and I were able to attend. At the Hyde Park Vigil, as Pope Benedict XVI entered with the Blessed Sacrament, the choir sang “Lead Kindly Light”, and it seemed that Newman was present with us at the service. In Birmingham the next morning, as the rain cleared on the Pope’s arrival, we were deeply moved to hear Pope Benedict utter Newman´s personal motto, “Cor ad Cor Loquitur” – Heart Speaks to Heart – his motto which gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as a profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. I saw the same profound desire growing and deepening in the poetry Newman wrote during the Mediterranean journey.

The more I read, the more I was convinced that there is an unexplored depth in his poetry. To be understood by English students, the poetry needed to be paraphrased and its Biblical allusions illustrated. This connected with my idea that Newman was the summit of English Romanticism who raised the romantic ideals to a spiritual height not reached before him. His imagination was able to pierce material reality and go beyond to the invisible world, once revealed through religion or history, yet living today. I

decided that it was worth the effort of looking for the sources and connections of his poetic allusions so that others could understand the poems better and build on it. I hoped that an appreciation for his poetry and thought in English literature would remove its stereotype of Tractarian Poetry, because to analyse his writing is to be enraptured by his genius.

Newman reappeared in my life in November 2015. I had been ill for five months, unable to digest my food, and had lost about 20 kg. The doctors could not find a reason for this. On the 20th of November a very dear friend, Fr. Luis, a Salesian priest, 94 years old, was visiting Cordoba. I found him in his confessional and after explaining to him my difficulties, he said to me, “Pray for a miracle.” My thought went to Cardinal Newman and I began to pray fervently for my cure. On December 9, I was hospitalized, and after about a week the scan showed a swelling of my pancreas blocking the duodenum. An operation was urgent.

I took a relic of Cardinal Newman with me and despite a few complications I was able to return home January 16, 2016, after more than a month in the hospital. While in hospital the chaplains used to pray with us to Bl. Newman when they brought us Holy Communion; our friends and my family in Canada joined in prayer.

The year 2017 was complicated too. In March and April I was in hospital for a serious ascites problem. As always the relic of Newman was with me; and soon the nurses began to ask me who he was as they had never heard of him. The radiologist discovered that my problem was a constriction of the portal vein going to the liver for which I needed a stent.

Last November, my eyes and face revealed a liver complication and I realized I had forgotten Newman and to pray to him every day. There was another blockage, this time of the bile duct, which was resolved with another stent in December and, of course, Newman´s relic came to the intervention.

After Christmas, a relapse sent me back to the hospital for two weeks where Newman´s relic was again with me at every test and at the head of my bed. I began praying to other saints to help him get his miracle for canonization: to Padre Pio, Saint Anthony, Saint Therèse of Lisieux … I would ask their help telling them they did not need a miracle as they were already canonized, but that Newman does need a miracle to be canonized and to be declared a Doctor of the Church, and thus do much good for the ecumenical movement in our Church. I also asked the saints to pray for Newman´s miracle first: the Communion of Saints will surely intercede for the needs of our time.

When the doctor sent me home she said “You know, you are like an everyday miracle and those are the kind I like the best”. I think Newman´s intercession is helping me every day!

You asked how I have allowed Newman to influence me? The study of his poetry inspired my desire for an intimate spiritual friendship. I felt a passion in discovering his personality during his Mediterranean journey, the poetry, diaries and letters of that time. I was amazed at his sermons, his Idea of a University, his analysis of poetry according to Aristotle … I have come to love his friends, his sister Mary, his idea of tutoring, the clarity of his conscience …

As I read Newman the Priest, A Father of Souls by Gerard Skinner, the excerpts from Newman stimulate me to read more of his works and to do more for his cause, for he is a light to be held up. I still have to keep my promise to write about the mystical experiences in his work. He is guiding his spiritual children. This guidance is an expression of his motto “heart speaks to heart”, and it will influence me for the rest of my life.

Everyday, I will pray for the grace of his canonization and, God willing, of my complete recovery through Newman’s intercession with God.

One of Newman’s closest friends was Henry W. Wilberforce (1807-1873), the youngest son of the William Wilberforce, The Emancipator, and a relative of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry studied at Oxford where he took Anglican orders. He married and became rector of a country parish. After his own conversion Newman prayed and offered Masses for Henry’s conversion. He was very open with his friend, urging him to become Roman Catholic. He reminded him: “You know what an awful overcoming view Catholics take of the grace of God – as that which we cannot merit, which may be withdrawn without any injustice to us, which is not given to all in the same measure,” and told him that he was duty-bound by conscience to convert.

Newman helped his friend to resolve doubts but thought that it would be a question of having sufficient grace. He wrote of his friend: “The simple question was, as he felt it, not to rid himself of the thousand difficulties speculative and practical, which hem in and confuse our intellect here below, but what was the word and what was the will of Him who gave him a work to do on earth. If that was plain, it was nothing to the purpose, it was nothing to him, that ‘clouds and darkness’ closed it in on every side. ‘What must I do to be saved?’ – that was the whole matter to him, as with all serious minds.”

With Newman’s encouragement Wilberforce’s wife, who had also been undecided, was received in the Church in June 1850. A few months later on September 15, Henry at last took the step to the Catholic Church and was received with his children in the Church in Paris. In a postscript of the fourth printing of a farewell letter to his parishioners he wrote: “When I remember the many doubts and misgivings which I felt when I was still a Protestant, and the many fears with which I shrunk from joining myself to a system which I long believed to be so corrupt and horrible, and when I compare these feelings with the certainty, and peace and blessedness which I have found since I had grace to make the venture; it seems to me, as if the change I have made can be compared only to the happy death of the just, from which in years gone by they perhaps shrunk with dread, and hardly dared to look forward to it; but to which they for ever look back as to their new birth into a stable blessed, beyond all that the heart of man can conceive.”[1]

Of the four Wilberforce brothers, three became Catholic. Robert Isaac, who along with Henry had been a part of the Oxford Movement, did so in 1853. He died in Rome where he had moved to, to prepare for the priesthood. William, the oldest brother converted in 1864.

Once a Roman Catholic Henry Wilberforce served the Church as a lawyer, writer and editor. Before his death in 1873, he received the last rites from one of his sons, a Dominican. After the funeral Mass Newman was asked to say a few words and was conducted to the pulpit. A person present described the scene as follows:

For some minutes, however, he was utterly incapable of speaking, and stood, his face covered with his hands, making vain efforts to master his emotion. I was quite afraid he would have to give it up. At last, however, after two or three attempts, he managed to steady his voice, and to tell us that “he knew him so intimately and loved him so much, that it was almost impossible for him to command himself sufficiently to do what he had been so unexpectedly asked to do, viz., to bid his dear friend farewell. He had known him for fifty years, and though, no doubt, there were some there who knew his goodness better than he did, yet it seemed to him that no one could mourn him more.” Then he drew a little outline of his life—of the position of comfort and all “that this world calls good,” in which he found himself, and of the prospect of advancement, “if he had been an ambitious man.” “Then the word of the Lord came to him, as it did to Abraham of old, to go forth from that pleasant home, and from his friends, and all he held dear, and to become —” here he fairly broke down again, but at last, lifting up his head, finished his sentence—”a fool for Christ’s sake.” Then he said that he now “committed him to the hands of his Saviour,” and he reminded us of “the last hour, and dreadful judgment, which awaited us all, but which his dear brother had safely passed through,” and earnestly and sweetly prayed “that every one there present might have a holy and happy death.”[2]

This educated Englishman had followed his close friend John Henry Newman to the Roman Catholic Church, sacrificing his position and comfort to where his conscience led him, becoming in St. Paul’s words “a fool for Christ’s sake.”

 

[1] Quoted in Newman to Converts, An Existential Ecclesiology, Stanley L. Jaki, Real View Books, 2001, pp. 69-70.

[2] See Sayings of Cardinal Newman, www.newmanreader.org

As a consequence of John Henry Newman’s writings and through his prayers and friendship, many influential men and women of his time became Roman Catholics. One of these, Edward Lowth Badeley (1803-1868), was an Oxford graduate from Brasenose College who had earned a Master of Arts degree in 1828 and had moved to London in the mid-1830’s. He was admitted to the bar in 1841 and became a prominent lawyer in ecclesiastic law.[1]

Badeley and Newman first met in 1837, and when Newman was about to be received in the Church he wrote Badeley asking him to inform Scott-Hope. In his reply Badeley wrote that he had lately read the Prophetic Office in which the Anglican Church appeared poised between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Newman replied:

My book on ‘the Prophetical Office etc’ was written 9 years ago – Six years ago the Catholicity of the Church of Rome broke on my mind suddenly and clearly. I have never shaken off the impression, though for a long time I dreaded to allow it, lest it should be a delusion.

They remained friends and five years later Badeley followed Newman’s path to Rome. During these years they met alone in London or with their mutual friend Hope-Scott. In February 1847 they met in Rome where Newman was studying to be ordained a Catholic priest.

In 1849, Badeley argued the case of the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, against the Rev. George C. Gorham. The bishop did not wish to install the priest because he did not believe in the sanctifying grace bestowed by the Sacrament of Baptism. As a consequence the Judicial Committee of the Queen’s Privy Council overturned the decision of the Court of Arches in favor of the bishop; and although three members of the Committee were Anglican Archbishops, they failed to see the wrong in undermining the Church’s teaching and authority.

Fourteen important church and lay men proceeded to draw up and sign a nine-point document indicating the gravity of the verdict. Six of the signatories, including Archdeacon Manning and Archdeacon Robert Wilberforce, later converted to Catholicism. The last two on the list, James Hope-Scott and Badeley, would also convert under the impact of this court decision. It should be noted that at that juncture in time the Church of England was ruled by archbishops who had lost their sense of orthodox doctrine and ecclesiastical authority, and by many politicians in Parliament.

In 1850 Newman delivered twelve lectures later printed in one volume titled Difficulties of Anglicans. Manning, Hope-Scott and Badeley, who were well on their way to the Roman Catholic Church, attended the lectures.

In 1851 Badeley was an assistant counsel in the Achilli case, a libel suit against Newman who, in his lectures in The Present Position of Catholics in England, had made reference to Achilli, a profligate and apostate Catholic priest who projected his profligacy upon Catholic clergy. Newman was found at fault because the various ecclesiastics withheld the necessary evidence to substantiate his accusations which, of course, were true. However, notwithstanding this injustice, the world at large remained convinced of Newman’s innocence.

His friendship with Badeley continued to grow, and Newman remained forever grateful to his friend for his “legal skill and affectionate zeal” in his defense. We can only imagine Badeley’s gratitude towards Newman whose books, dinner conversations, and courageous example for the sake of the Truth, contributed in great measure to his conversion.

Newman’s example and prayer is a lesson to us and an invitation to help others to embrace the Catholic faith.

 

 

 

[1] See Stanley L. Jaki, Newman to Converts, An Existential Ecclesiology, (Real View Books, Michigan), 2001, pp. 75-84.

My Story, My Ordinary Conversion

I’ve always been devoted to Catholic faith. So this is not a conversion story per se, yet faith grows and I owe some of the growth of my faith to Cardinal Newman. In this sense, my story is also a “conversion” to God, a conversion in my life as a practicing Catholic.

One day in 2013 I visited our local Catholic gift shop. Catholic gift stores are where I find books and prayer cards and medals, and this particular place is wonderful – there is so much happiness there and everyone talks about their faith. This one day he owner asked if I would care to pick my “Saint of The Year.” Seeing the puzzled look on my face she explained that, in a box on the store’s countertop, there were names of saints written on pieces of paper and I should pick a name: whichever saint’s name came up would be my Saint of The Year and I could safely conclude that, in turn, this saint had chosen me. As it turned out, I withdrew the name of Blessed John Henry Newman. Now I had never heard of him prior to this and wanted to learn more. Once home, I commenced research on him online and was delighted to learn that he was a writer. It also occurred to me that as I am also a writer this might be the reason the cardinal returned the favor!

I knew that he was with the Church of England and converted to Catholicism and that his Catholic faith meant a lot to him. I am a devout Catholic and being Catholic also means everything to me. I also have a special devotion to Saint Thomas More for his courage to defend his Catholic faith and the authority of the pope. Blessed John Henry Newman also reminds me of Saint Thomas More: they were both writers, both English, and both criticized for holding on to the Catholic faith.

It is sad that non-Catholics do not honor and pray to Mary like Catholics do. In Father Juan Velez’s book, “Holiness in a Secular Age, The Witness of Cardinal Newman,” he writes of Blessed John Henry Newman’s devotion to Mary: “[Blessed John Henry Newman] envisioned that Mary sent Simon of Cyrene and Veronica to help Jesus,” (page 186). As I read his sensitive insight of Mary’s impassioned love for her son, I could very well picture her sending Simon and Veronica to comfort Jesus.

I have a prayer card of Blessed John Henry Newman above my computer and writing desk. I look to him for advice when I am at a loss for words. Also, because he chose me to have him as my Saint of The Year, I feel a closeness to him and turn to him when my family members are sick and ask him to Intercede on their behalves. I am so thankful and blessed that Cardinal John Henry Newman came into my life and hope he will stay with me more than just the one year of being my Saint of the Year.

At the moment, together with my mother and family we are praying for the cure of an uncle who has a tumor on the brain (a glioblastoma). He had surgery recently and is now undergoing further treatment. We are asking God through the intercession of Blessed Newman for his cure. This prayer, too, means growing in faith – a conversion – in the belief that God is close to us and cares for our needs.

People need to imitate the prayer of the person in the Gospel who approaches Jesus asking for their servant’s cure: “Lord, I believe but help my unbelief.” This is a sort of conversion that Jesus asks of each one of us.  My conversion, in the end, is a conversion to greater faith in Christ.