Tuesday, June 10, 2003
On Paul's Conversion Day, Three Modern Converts
by Tim Drake
For sheer, earthshaking impact, the fall from a horse that turned Saul of Tarsus into St. Paul may be unequaled in the annals of Church history. That's why the Church celebrates the mysterious Conversion of St. Paul - who changed from a dogged persecutor of the early Church into the traveling Apostle who wrote much of the New Testament - each Jan. 25.
St. Paul, you may recall, was on his way to Damascus to halt those pesky Christians in their tracks when he was knocked to the ground by a blinding light. Then he heard a voice saying, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting … Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do" (Acts 9:1-6).
Twenty centuries later, people continue to be knocked off their own "horses" in all manner of ways: Approximately 200,000 converts enter the Catholic Church each year. As the Church once again remembers what was arguably the greatest conversion of all time, the Register looks at three contemporary converts whose experiences have made a comparably modest, but no less inspiring, impact on the world around them.
Barbara Hall has enjoyed a long and successful career as a television writer and producer. Currently noted for her work as executive producer of CBS' "Judging Amy," she has received the Humanitas Award, the Viewers for Quality Television Award, the TV Critics Award, a Writers Guild Award nomination and three Emmy nominations. She previously worked on such well-received shows as "Chicago Hope," "I'll Fly Away" and "Newhart."
Hall told the Register she "fell off the horse" during the decade following her first year of college. Raised in a strict Methodist home, she abandoned the faith in college. "It stopped speaking to me," Hall says. "I was falling off the horse all over the place."
The victim of a violent crime, Hall found herself facing a divorce and raising a daughter. "I examined all kinds of spiritualities, from Buddhism to yoga to meditation and therapy," she recalls.
When Hall's ex-husband remarried a Catholic, her daughter began attending Mass at a Catholic church. "I needed to know what she was hearing," says Hall, whose journey first led her to an Episcopal church. "It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Suddenly I realized that church is about Communion."
The conversion of her sister to the Catholic faith eight years earlier also played a role. "When you're thrashing around for religion, you need role models," says Hall. "You want to point to someone and say, 'I want to be that kind of Catholic.'" She was also drawn by the content and form of the Mass, recognizing a deep consistency with the early Church. "I found that I completely connected with [liturgical worship]," she says. "I wanted a liturgy that was as close to the original as possible."
The journey had its difficulties. "It was an incredible struggle because I was alone in it," explains Hall. "I had had a negative experience with religion to get over." Her conversion also forced her to develop new friendships.
For Hall, the turning point came during a discussion with one of her Christian friends about three years ago. "I knew I had this need to go back to the church, but I was railing, going through all of the contradictions. I asked my friend, 'How can you believe this? How can you live this?' She responded, 'You don't understand. I'm a bad Christian.' At that moment, everything seemed to make sense."
With friend and sponsor Barbara Nicolosi, director of Act One: a screenwriting institute, Hall attended a local parish's Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes. She came into the Church at St. Monica's Catholic Church in Santa Monica, Calif., last Pentecost. "Most of my evolving in the Church has happened since then," Hall says. "You begin to understand it the more you participate."
Florida's Burning Bush
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's "horse" moment came by means of a family crisis following his failed bid for the Sunshine State's top office in 1994. Bush, whose brother would go on to become president of the United States, became so obsessed with his gubernatorial campaign that he nearly lost his family as well.
Raised an Episcopalian, Bush had been introduced to the Catholic faith through his Mexican-born wife, Columba. He had occasionally accompanied his wife to church since their 1974 marriage, but it was not until 1995 that he entered the Church.
By the end of his 1994 campaign, Bush was estranged from his wife and children, one of whom was struggling with apparent substance abuse. Last year, their daughter Noelle was arrested on pharmaceutical-fraud charges; the family has confirmed that she has been through treatment.
In an effort to save his family, Bush decided to explore the Catholic faith. Bush told Time magazine: "I vowed to myself after the election that I would convert."
Beginning in November 1994, just two weeks after his defeat, Bush attended his first RCIA class. He continued with the program once a week for five months at Epiphany Catholic Church in Miami. He was received into the faith at Easter 1995.
Bush has explained that his conversion turned out to be therapeutic. Of his RCIA experience, he said in an interview, "These were real people, and it was so much fun to talk about normal things and to be treated as just a normal, ordinary person … I'm convinced that I'm better off for not having won."
Subsequent to his conversion, Bush was elected governor in 1998 and handily won re-election in 2002.
From Convert to Cardinal
Although he grew up Presbyterian, Cardinal Avery Dulles' faith had given way to atheism and skepticism by the time he entered Harvard University in 1936.
Books by Aristotle, Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and others first opened Cardinal Dulles' eyes to the richness of the Catholic faith. At Harvard, Dulles - the son of former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles - confronted the classics as well as contemporary Catholic writers such as Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson. "The more I examined, the more I was impressed with the consistency and sublimity of Catholic doctrine," he recalls.
Cardinal Dulles' conversion was a gradual, rational process. Through his study of history, he became familiar with the medieval Church and found himself attracted to it. "I studied the Reformation and read Luther, Calvin and the decrees of the Council of Trent," says the influential cardinal. "I found my sympathies were always on the Catholic side and felt that was where I belonged."
Like Hall, Cardinal Dulles also found himself attracted to the liturgy: "I was living in Cambridge, Mass., which, at that time, and perhaps still today, is a very Catholic city. The Catholic Church had a hold on its people that no Protestant church seemed to have. The people were attending church services in huge numbers and going to confession, communion, Benediction and Holy Week services."
Also like Hall, he describes his journey as a solitary one. Aside from brief contact with a Harvard professor who had converted, Cardinal Dulles was "very alone" in his journey. "That professor was the only glimpse I had of a living Catholicism," he says. "I didn't have any close friends who were practicing Catholics. Only later did I realize that others were making the same journey."
Cardinal Dulles frequented the lending library at St. Thomas More bookstore, taking books out over the weekend and returning them for more. The turning point came in 1938 after he read a chapter of St. Augustine's City of God. "I got tired of reading and went out for a walk," he recalls. After leaving Harvard's Widener Library, he walked out into a rainy spring afternoon and noticed a young tree budding along the Charles River.
"Somehow, I had a sense of God in nature and providence and work, which to me was very decisive," says Cardinal Dulles. "I got down on my knees and prayed for a while and had a sense of the presence of God that I hadn't had before. I knew that I was on my way to the Catholic Church, but I still had a lot of things to work out."
One day, Cardinal Dulles recalled asking at the bookstore, "How do I get into your church?" When they responded that he needed to be instructed by a priest, he answered that he had never met a priest. The store connected him with Edwin Quain, then a Jesuit graduate student at Harvard. He spent the next six weeks studying the Catechism.
Young Avery's decision came as a shock to his family. Although his father did not think the decision was right, he respected his son's freedom to make his own decisions.
The future cardinal was received into the Church at St. Paul's Church in Cambridge in November 1940. He was 22. After graduating from Harvard, he attended law school before being called to duty as an intelligence officer by the U.S. Naval Reserve. Upon returning to the United States, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1946. He is currently a theologian and professor at Fordham University.
Cardinal Dulles tells the story of his conversion in his book A Testimonial of Grace. In it he wrote: "If the Kingdom is the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field, one should be prepared to give up everything else to acquire it."
© 2003. Article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register, Jan, 19-26, 2003.
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