Sunday, March 01, 2015

Hearts of Stone to Hearts of Flesh

We hear a lot about Catholics leaving the Church, but we sometimes forget that, though it is undeniable the Church is in a demographic crisis, it is also true that converts continue to flood into the barque of Peter. They come from Protestantism, from New Age mysticism, from atheism, or just from a lax and non-practicing Catholicism back to the observance of the Gospel. Some come in just because a path of study and prayer leads them there, but others come in under circumstances that are fascinating. Often the story of their road to Rome is filled with so much coincidence that it is hard to see it as anything other than providential.

In this post I share five of my most favorite stories about people brought into the Faith by the most unexpected means. In each case I have given only the most abbreviated accounts; no doubt there were more steps, more people, more moments of grace involved, but I think I have presented the crux of each story accurately.

The Wrong Priest

A agnostic young man with a sordid history and nothing but ridicule for the Catholic Church takes a dare from a friend to go into a Catholic confessional. He stops randomly at a parish in Detroit and goes into the confessional with the intention of mocking the priest and wasting his time. Little does the man know he has walked into the confessional of Fr. Eduard Perrone of Assumption Grotto, the most bad-ass priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit and definitely the wrong priest to casually pick on! The priest asks, "What do you have to confess?" The man arrogantly says, "Nothing." Father says, "We'll see about that." He takes out an examination of conscience pamphlet and starts reading through it, asking the man whether he'd committed each sin. By the end of the list the man is broken and realizes his sinfulness. He make a sincere repentance and is received into full communion with the Church not long after. He later becomes a catechist in his own parish.

Converted by Beauty

A man and his fiance are driving through the country. They are secularists, both fallen-away Catholics. They will be getting married later that year are are on the look out for a church - any church - that "looks pretty" so they can be wed somewhere scenic. They see a small little Catholic Church off the main road and pull off to check it out. It is a beautiful neo-gothic era building. It somehow survived the wrekcovation of the 1970s and still has its 19th century high altar and art. The pastor happens to be in the church. They tell him they want to get married there "because the church is so pretty." He opens up into a catechesis on what the Church is, why the art is so beautiful, what is all represents. By the end of the meeting, the two have signed up for RCIA. They return to the practice of the Faith and are married in the Church later that year.

Just One Traditional Latin Mass

A young man who was quite a ways through medical school was invited to Mass by a priest who regularly says the Traditional Latin Mass. He was uncertain about Catholicism in general, let alone the Traditional Latin Mass. The priest implored him. "Just one Latin Mass," he told the medical student. The young man assented and attended the one Traditional Mass. He was blown away. A year later he was in the seminary. He has now been a priest for over ten years. Just one Traditional Latin Mass. The priest who related this story, Fr. Kevin Lutz in Columbus (the most bad-ass priest in Ohio), stated that he had personally led over ten men into the priesthood in a similar manner.

For Love of France

A young man from Flint, MI - rated "the most dangerous city in America" - had a powerful conversion to non-denominational, Protestant Christianity. He never felt completely at home in any church, however, and tried to fill the void by getting involved in a lot of ministries, mission trips, etc. Eventually he wound up on a "mission trip" to...France. But whenever he had spare time, he would sneak away and sit in the various little parish churches that are scattered throughout France, many dating to the Baroque era or older. He fell in love with French culture, taught himself French and, realizing that the most essential thing about French culture was Catholicism, began exploring the Church. He was received into full communion this past fall on the Feast of Christ the King and is currently discerning whether or not he may have a vocation.

Beautiful Singing

An ardent atheist who had made a very determined rejection of God and His Church had a Catholic wife. She attended Mass alone for many years and prayed patiently for her husband. Eventually the husband consented to come to Mass with his wife, where he was struck by the beautiful singing of one of the cantors. The beauty of the singing melted his resistance, and he became convinced of the reality of God. His heart now softened by God's grace, his intellectual opposition withered away. Not long after he entered RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church the following Easter. The cantor served as his sponsor.

The interesting thing is that in none of the above cases was the person converted by hearing a bunch of arguments. It was other things: beauty, liturgy, a sense of their own sinfulness, the glory of Catholic culture. To be sure, after their hearts were converted, argumentation and intellectual reasoning helped edify them in their faith, but in none of the five cases did rational argumentation precipitate their conversion. This is certainly not to say that nobody is ever "argued" into the faith; many people are. The point is that the manner is which God chooses to bring an individual into the Church is as varied as people themselves.

These stories should give us confidence in the power of God's grace; He calls whom He wills. It is His Church and He can bring in anybody through any means He chooses. When we see something like this unfolding before our eyes, as I did in a story I narrated recently, our job is to support them with prayer and, when necessary, by answering their questions. But we do not make converts, at least not in the strict sense. The Holy Spirit, "who convicts the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8), it is He who makes converts by turning hearts of stone to hearts of flesh (cf. Ezk. 36:26). Faith is a gift.

What about you? What sorts of unexpected conversions have you been blessed to witness? Leave your stories in the combox.


CatholicMommy said...

Two years ago, a choir was established in our parish. By the grace of God, they have been able to sing these beautiful polyphonic pieces despite their lack of music instruction, time and young age. None are older than 16, and most are not even teenagers. There has been a very noticeable increase in Mass attendance since then. People respond to the Good, the True, and The Beautiful every time. Our preaching is usually the deal-breaker.

Ulysses Dismas said...

These are amazing! The story about Fr. Lutz makes me a little depressed that I will not be heading to Columbus in the fall, though. (Ohio State did not accept me into their doctoral program.)

I don't want to tout my own horn, but the most amazing conversion I have been previleged to witness was one where God saw fit to have me play a small role.

My junior year, a student transferred to my public high school. I got to know him simply because we had Latin together (along with some other classes) and he always carried a Bible with him, even in a public school! We got to be friends I think because I was one of the few who did not ridicule him for his beliefs.

I was no saint at that time, though. I attended Mass every Sunday, often serving at the altar with my brother, but on Fridays and Saturdays I was often off drinking and had one of the foulest mouths in school. Nevertheless, somehow the Holy Spirit used me to open a dialogue with this Fundamentalist friend of mine. Our "discussions" would last for hours after school, and I always felt I had been a poor defender of the faith at the end of them. We graduated and went our separate ways. He went to a Baptist college in Tennessee to study to become a preacher.

Three years later, we both found ourselves back in our hometown. I was shocked to find out he was in my parish's RCIA program! Apparently, the Holy Spirit had used my words to somehow plant a seed. I had the honor to serve as my friend's sponsor and he is currently discerning whether he was a vocation to join the Franciscan order.

The most amazing part of the story is that year in high school that I was most struggling with my own faith.

Hrodgar said...

Good post, two caveats.

There are, in fact, at least a few folks who get argued in. I was one of them. Granted, I was a raised Protestant, so I was halfway there already. And then, well, reason is beautiful, so I suppose that might still count as being convinced by beauty, I dunno.

Along similar lines, while I would agree that there are very few people whose conversions were, as you said, precipitated by rational arguments, I would be astonished if there were very many who were converted without any argument at all. I seem to recall something Chesterton said along the lines of a man being less likely to be convinced by four arguments than an argument, a conversation, a song, and a story; something like that anyway, I forget the exact quote.

Main point is, while rational argument is not always the most, or even an, effective thing to do with any given individual or at any given point, its usefulness is not strictly post-conversion.

Boniface said...

I would agree. I did not mean to suggest it had no place. I just wanted to point out that the common idea of arguing people into the faith is not the only model for how conversion happens. The point of the post is that it can happen in a variety of ways.

Hrodgar said...

Sorry, pet peeve of mine. It has been my experience that arguing people into the faith is far from being a common idea, but I suppose we run in different circles, or perhaps I just haven't noticed it. If it hadn't been for the italicized "after," though, I probably wouldn't have said anything; I've noticed several occasions recently where I raised what I thought was a counterpoint only to find out the other actually agreed with me and just put things a bit differently, and I've been trying to rein it in a bit. With, as you have seen, very limited success.

Boniface said...

No you had a fair point. I will slightly alter the wording to clarify. Thanks.