The Catholic Thing
Becoming Catholic at Oxford Print E-mail
By Christine Niles   
Sunday, 11 May 2014

When I was a student at Oxford, I woke up before sunrise several mornings a week, donning my windbreaker, and hopping onto my bicycle – a green dinosaur I had bought for ten pounds on consignment – to cycle the mile or so down from north Oxford to Christ Church Meadow, where the rest of the crew would meet at the boat house for rowing practice.

After hefting the boat from its rack and dropping it gently into the water, we eight would take our places. As captain of my boat and stroke seat, I sat directly opposite the coxswain. His voice – along with the gentle lapping of our oars in the water – would be the only sounds heard as we rowed down the Isis through the fog, our breaths misty in the bitterly cold dawn, spreading slowly overhead in shades of gold and pink.

Rowing provided a pleasant – if not at times challenging – break from the grind of daily studies. I was working towards a master’s degree in theology, with a focus on ecclesiastical history. Not yet a Catholic, my studies – particularly of Patristics and Reformation history – would provide the first chink in the Protestant armor I wore, challenging my assumptions about the Catholic Church.

I knew nothing then of the rich Catholic history of Oxford, and of the many Catholic luminaries who had graced its halls: Blessed John Henry Newman, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. Tolkien.

I would often cycle past St. Aloysius Church, home of the Oxford Oratory, my bicycle groaning past its yellow stone façade, never knowing or understanding what took place on the High Altar within: that the Lord of heaven and earth, the One for Whom I was created to know, love, and serve in this life in order to share in His eternal happiness in the next, was daily called down from heaven by the priest to hide Himself in the form of a piece of bread, so that – in what St. Catherine of Siena called the “love unto madness” – He might unite Himself to us body and soul.

It would be several years before I would acknowledge this stupendous truth about the Catholic Faith, the central point, one could say, distinguishing Catholic from Protestant.

Hilaire Belloc was among the first historians to challenge the assumption – taught as fact to schoolchildren everywhere – that the English Reformation was a noble protest based on the desire to protect theological purity. It was, he argued, much more a land grab driven by a king whose coffers were empty from war, and who purchased the loyalty of powerful patrons by offering them titles and newly seized Church lands.

     Godstow Abbey

The Acts of Suppression ended up shuttering over 800 religious houses throughout England. Among these was Godstow Abbey, situated on a footpath along the Isis River, whose ruins we would pass on warm summer days when we trekked to a local pub for fish and chips. Home to Benedictine nuns since 1133 until it was suppressed in 1539, an acquaintance told me with a chuckle that the nuns had led dissolute lives, running their house as a brothel. Not knowing any better, I believed him.

But such falsehoods about Catholic religious were commonplace, concocted by Thomas Cromwell to justify the mass seizure of Church property (and all its riches) by the Crown.

As you wander the desolate grounds, looking at the tumbling masonry and the rocky partitions overgrown with moss, you might think of the many lives that passed through those walls, that lived, worshipped, and died there; walking through the chapel that is no more, you might imagine the rustic choir stalls where once the nuns knelt to pray Matins on bitterly cold mornings, or gathered at dusk to entreat their Lord on the King’s behalf. Standing beneath the east window, you might imagine the stone Altar where previously stood some venerable priest to offer the Holy Sacrifice, or the roughly paved floor where the habited sisters knelt to receive the Sacred Host.

You might consider the place where the Tabernacle once rested, the presence lamp casting dim shadows on the chapel walls, a flame kept burning daily and nightly for centuries – until that unfortunate day in 1539, when the King’s men arrived to tell the abbess and the sixteen women in her charge that this would be their home no longer. Driven out, with meager pensions, to make their way in the world as laypeople, this scene played out hundreds of times all over that land made sacred by the blood of martyrs – blood that would once again flow at York, Dorchester, and Tyburn.

It wasn’t until 1829 – nearly 300 years later – that the right of Catholics to vote and hold public office in England was restored, and not until 1871 that restrictions against Catholics were lifted at Oxford. Before then, students were required to take an oath upholding the Thirty-Nine Articles. To this day, heirs to the British throne are forbidden by law from marrying Catholics.

I knew nothing of such things then, content to believe the Protestant interpretation of English history. It would take studying the works of the Early Church Fathers, learning about the early heresies and the Church’s struggle to protect doctrinal purity, and acquainting myself with the witness of martyrs like St. Thomas More, to sow seeds of doubt in my mind about the simplistic Protestant narrative I then believed.

Those seeds would bear fruit some years later when I came back to the Faith of my youth, returning to full communion with the Church, and uniting myself to her and all her members, present and past – including the many souls who lived and died for the Faith on that venerable isle. I like to think those souls knew me then, even in my unbelief, and prayed for me, and rejoiced to see me reunited to the Faith for which they gave their lives.

Christine Niles graduated from Oxford University and Notre Dame Law School, and is currently a stay-at-home mother. She is a host at Forward Boldly Radio, whose episodes can be found here: 
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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Frank Egan, May 11, 2014

As Newman said. "to be steeped in history
is to cease to be a Protestant".
written by Chris in Maryland, May 11, 2014
Amen Christine...from one rower to another.

The witness of the English Catholics, martyrs red and white, known and unknown, will keep winning hearts to Christ, until The Lord comes again.

For my part, they won my own.

Happy Mother's Day!
written by Diane Duncan, May 11, 2014
More, please!
written by Jack,CT, May 11, 2014
Happy Mom Day Christine,
I wanna simply say thanks I felt
as if there with you!

The Last Sentence of this piece is my favorite as I think
of our "dryness" of Faith,some more than others.

I remember Blessed Mother Teresa often,who could have known
she had her "Dark Night of the soul" for so long.

I must say I was not aware the perception of "Us".

Anyhow to all the Moms out there you are Loved......

"The Lovliest masterpiece of the heart"
of God is the heart of a mother"
-St Therese(our Little flower)

Oh member Father's day is soon,,,,,,,lol

written by schm0e, May 11, 2014
This is art.
written by Stanley Anderson, May 11, 2014
Wonderful article. Though we had different paths, my wife and I (who joined the Catholic Church seven years ago) both recognize the pattern of conversion and change of view of Protestant theology. As Diane Duncan above says, "More, please!".

And it reminds me of some parody lyrics I wrote sometime back to the old Paul Simon song "Kodachrome" that seem appropriate (I suppose one must be familiar with the original lyrics to better appreciate the sonic similarities of the parody lines):
Go to Rome

When I think back on all the sacraments I spurned then
As an unenlightened Protestant
It was the anti-Catholic attitudes I learned then
Now it all just seems like lots of rant

Go to Rome
And live as a Christ-like Catholic
Know what it means for sinners
Being absolved from sins confessed to a priest, oh yeah
I got an icon, rosary,
Love to pray, and go to Mass
No Protestant take, I go to Rome and feast!

If you took all the world’s wild lures, intermingled
And bought ‘em all for pleasure day and night
I know they’d never match sweet reconciliation
And all those sins look worse in black and white

Go to Rome...
written by Jim, May 11, 2014
What a wonderful way to begin a beautiful Sunday just before leaving for Mass. Thank you so very much.
written by Myshkin, May 11, 2014
Glad you made your degree at Oxford. And I really enjoyed your earlier peice on Vietnam and your family.

But Oxford, like England as a whole has a very mixed history WRT Catholicism. It has had some greatly learned men, some of whom you mention. I'll add three medievals to the list: Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Adam Marsh. There could be many others.

On the other hand men who contested the Catholic faith like William of Ockham, Wycllife and Tyndale have also hailed from there. And, alas, at this point it has become as irreligious as all state universities in Europe. Becoming a Catholic there would've been just as difficult as anywhere in the West.
written by Kevin, May 12, 2014
Shocking privilege journeys all the way from ignorant adolescent nominally protestant fantasies all the way to ignorant Catholic triumphalist fantasies. Such a journey! You went to Oxford? Can you do better? Please?
written by Manny, May 12, 2014
What a moving piece Ms. Niles. You even mentioned my personal patron saint, Catherine of Siena. Kudos. And welcome home.
written by Randall, May 13, 2014
I'm a few days late - but good to see something from Ms. Niles again. This is a beautiful essay. I love the Forward Boldly Radio interviews, too.
written by Ken Vee, May 13, 2014
Kevin, Kevin... Your superiority complex might be showing. An unchivalrous comment, too, I might add. My editorial commentary now aside, your "shocking privilege" blast was groundless. You obviously haven't acquainted yourself with the writer's story, which can be found online at the Forward Boldly site. (She tells it well. I think you might enjoy it… her debut show, I believe). If you knew her story you might feel a tad ashamed of your knee-jerk reaction. Oxford and Notre Dame weren't achieved with money and privilege, but rather, by hard work and a solid IQ (a "few" points higher than yours, or mine, I'd wager). Pax tecum.
written by Brad Miner, May 13, 2014
I rise in support of Ken Vee's admonishment of "Kevin." Mr. Vee's suggestions are apt, but I'll direct you as well to Christine Nile's first column for The Catholic Thing, "Vietnam: Dreams and Reality," which you may access all the way down at the bottom of this page.

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