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:

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know what an awful overcoming view Catholics take of the grace of God – as that which we cannot merit, which may be withdrawn without any injustice to us, which is not given to all in the same measure,” and told him that he was duty-bound by conscience to convert.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.