My confessor had been patient with me over a few months. He was Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory in Toronto, and when I told him I wished to become a Catholic, he looked relieved, as if I had decided to give up on a life of crime.
Curiously, I had, although I was not a criminal in the conventional, “lower class” sense. I was just an Anglican, and had been one since earlier in my adulthood. My motive for transferring my allegiance to Rome was not grand; I’d simply had enough of Anglican politics, and doctrinal decay, and could not take Protestant claims seriously anymore.
When Father Robinson heard that I had said this to someone, he found me on a telephone. I was invited to tea. We had never met previously, though we knew each other “by reputation.” We could both be businesslike, and my instruction in the Catholic faith began immediately.
Over the next several months, our weekly meetings were an entertainment. Father Robinson was not an entertainer but had the gift of making Catholic teaching sparkle intellectually, just where one was expecting dullness. The most obvious propositions seemed the least obvious; the most difficult and often vexatious things, like a piece of cake. It helped that we both could appreciate paradox.
When, at last, it occurred to me that my paradox was an involuntary lapse, it was almost the season of Christmas. Advent was far advanced. I learned, almost as if I were the last to be told, that I would be “received” on the 31st of December, a Wednesday. That was precisely eighteen years ago.
So many things happen on the last day of the year, even to me.
I had a Confession to make, to this Confessor, that was challenging, for I had to disencumber myself of fifty years of sin and error. I got little sleep the night before, rehearsing the unmanageable list. Yet by the time I slipped off to sleep, I had ceased to be anxious, for I had remembered that “God is not out to get me.”
Enough of this reprise; for neither personal guilt nor continuing anger was useful to me anymore. Part of my thrust into the Catholic Church had indeed been guilt, and anger, yet, I had already largely overcome it. It was remarkable that, in pretty much the moment I had decided to cross the Tiber, my irritation with Canterbury ceased. It no longer claimed a part of me.
This is a phenomenon I have also learned from others. To join in prayer is quite plainly a positive development. The joy of it has the effect of deleting the misery one had previously experienced. One’s anger becomes a memory of anger, and in a sense, one laughs at it. One laughs at oneself, because one was a fool.
Father Robinson had another useful tip. He said it was good to greet an Anglican convert because the hierarchies of the two institutions were outwardly so similar. I had told him a few stories about my disappointing encounters with Anglican bishops, and others fully dressed. He said I should be prepared for the same sort of disillusion in Catholic circles.
The world is the world, and this applies to every ecclesial denomination as to all forms of human authority. Corruption enters from the start, and hypocrisy everywhere to hide it. One shouldn’t be surprised at this. For the surprise will turn to cynicism, and cynicism kills.
Allow for human nature, as it has always been; as it is incidentally reported even among the glorious characters in the Bible. And do not fail to find analogies to the worst sort of moral behavior, not in other humans, but in oneself.
I had been attracted to the Oratory because of the Mass, and Liturgy; the same that had once attracted me to Episcopal worship: the “smells and bells” as they say, facetiously. The Toronto Oratory, which shelters a few Anglican sensibilities, was the natural path of escape for them. Father Robinson himself was once an Anglican; as was Saint John Henry Newman.
There is a, necessarily mysterious, cultural homecoming within the act of conversion, from English to Oratory. Catholicism has a very long tradition within the British Isles, and through the British realms. It speaks English as one of its customary languages. There are moments when we never left those realms. Others left us – at the Reformation but also at many other vexatious times.
This is something we must remember now, when once again the Church is threatened, and the loyalty of her members is being discharged. “Modernity” returns to the scene of its destruction, as it has returned through the centuries. Our fight, once again, is with principalities and powers; we waste energy wrangling with fools who soon disappear from history.
But this was another point Father Robinson raised. For if one is too free with contempt, towards anyone, one will feel it for the Catholics, by and by. The more irascible one becomes, to persons and objects, the more one is led astray; and one comes to ignore the real enemy. The more, finally, one may find oneself working for the real enemy, in the smug certainty that one could hardly be tempted.
It was his mission, so far as he had opportunity, to make the Catholic religion attractive and appealing; and to remove trivial impediments to faith. This started with small, material things, far below theological objections. He was to make the yoke easy and the burden light, if ever he could.
And yet part of this ease was clarity. It is true charity to correct the sinner, and of course this takes the risk of alienating him. But where the intention is pure, it will possibly show through. The late Father Robinson had the gift not only to forgive, but even to be forgiven. He knew that his mission required that he be understood.
*Image: The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico, c. 1430-35 [Musée des beaux-arts Thomas Henry, Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, France]
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s To Heal the Eyes of the Heart
Michael Pakaluk’s Conversion as a Paradigm Shift