Why I Became Catholic
John Wilkins Wilkins February 23, 2009 - 11:17am
I am a child of Vatican II. Without it, I doubt I would be a Catholic today. Brought up as an Anglican, I would surely never have found my way into the church that in a special way stands in the tradition of St. Peter and St. Paul. To me, knowing little about the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council was a revelation. But today, I feel too much like an orphaned child.
Just at the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s announcement that he was calling a council, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops ordained illicitly by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988, bishops whose central conviction is that the council distorted the “true Tradition.” Consequently they spurn its liturgical reforms and its teachings on collegiality, ecumenism, the Jews, world religions, and religious freedom. The excommunication of these bishops has been lifted, the pope says, as a gesture of “pastoral concern and fatherly mercy,” and is to be seen as a first step in an extended dialogue in which it is hoped the Lefebvrists will come to accept Vatican II’s teachings. But how can they do that? Their whole reason for existence is the opposite.
At best, the pope’s actions have confused most Catholics while outraging Jews and disquieting even the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. As is now widely known, one of the bishops is a Holocaust denier (the chimneys of the crematoria were too short, he explains, and the doors not airtight enough to have had the reported effect), and the Lefebvrist movement has a well-documented history of anti-Semitism. Their leader in Germany, Fr. Franz Schmidberger, sent a letter to the German bishops before Christmas that included the assertion—in direct defiance of Vatican II’s declaration to the contrary—that every Jew who was not baptized was guilty of deicide.
What does all this mean, and where is it leading? No one is quite sure, especially those of us who entered the Catholic Church because of what the council did. I vividly remember how excitement about what was happening in Rome gripped not just the Catholic world, but the wider Christian community and others beyond it as well. Other Christians, long regarded by Catholics as “heretics” and “schismatics,” had suddenly become “separated brothers and sisters.” This was truly startling.
Just after the council, in 1966, the greatest Calvinist theologian of the time, Karl Barth, visited Rome and had an audience with Pope Paul VI. Though fascinated by the potential of the papacy, Barth had been used to saying before the advent of Pope John: “I cannot hear the voice of the Good Shepherd from this chair of Peter.” But now his tone changed. A year after his visit he published his reflections. “How would things look,” he asked in his book Ad Limina Apostolorum,
if Rome (without ceasing to be Rome) were one day simply to overtake us and place us in the shadows, so far as the renewing of the church through the word and the spirit of the gospel is concerned? What if we should discover that the last are first and the first last, that the voice of the Good Shepherd should find a clearer echo over there than among us?
That was what I, as a young journalist still in my twenties, had started to think as well. I belonged to the Protestant community, the community that protested. It seemed to me that the protest had finally been heard.
I was born in Cheltenham, in the English West Country, in 1936. When my parents met and married, they were both Congregationalists. Over the years since then my father had become an agnostic, my mother an Anglican, so they sat light to their nonconformist origins while still being utterly shaped by them. In our home in Cheltenham and then in Bristol, where we moved soon after the Second World War ended, it was the Protestant Reformation that was regarded as enlightened, and the Protestant conscience that was enshrined as the ultimate arbiter of behavior. It was my parents’ belief, of course, that Catholics marched to a different drum—to the beat of the authorities’ pronouncements in Rome. My parents would have had no idea, any more than I did at the time, that the most famous convert from the Church of England to the Church of Rome, John Henry Newman, had been as adamant as they were. “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” Newman declared in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. He described it as “a priest in its blessings and anathemas,” and he ended with his famous assertion: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink—to the pope, if you please—still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterwards.”
Another hinge of the Christian belief in which I was brought up at home and school was the Bible, and the simple devout prayer that such organizations as the Bible Reading Fellowship fostered around it. One of my teachers’ icons was William Tyndale, a harbinger of the Reformation, with his comment to a senior cleric of the time that when he had finished his English translation, a ploughboy would know more of Scripture than did that churchman.
Tyndale and his peers had launched a social and cultural revolution that my parents and teachers believed Catholics would never accept. They thought that Catholics downgraded the Bible’s authority and put the priests and pope above it.
Besides, Catholics drank. In common with their Congregationalist coreligionists, my parents hardly ever did. They carried on the nonconformist ban which had brought the nation such incalculable public benefit in saving it from gin. My father, who now ran his plastics business from an old warehouse in the Bristol city center, liked occasionally to have a glass of wine with his associates over lunch, but my mother greatly disapproved. She never touched a drop all her life, as far as I know. She did not need to, for she was a high-spirited woman.
We three children were well brought up. Our parents greatly valued learning, and made sacrifices to ensure we had it, because it was the one thing, they said, that no one could ever take away from us. They knew also, of course, that it would confer privilege on us, and never tired of telling us that this would entail a corresponding responsibility. What they could not bestow on us was the gift of a dependable loving partnership. Their marriage was difficult and often unhappy. Everyone had thought they were made for each other, but in reality it had been an attraction of opposites. As was the custom of those times, they had a long engagement while they saved to buy a house; then once the marriage knot was tied they went their separate ways internally. The strains on the marriage were reflected, inevitably, in adverse effects on their children.
We owed it to my mother that we went with her on Sundays to Christ Church on Clifton Green, while my father ostentatiously stayed at home. We were “prayer-book Anglicans,” following the 1662 Book of Common Prayer which was then the Anglican rule of faith as it had been for generation after generation. We walked in the line of the via media laid out by the Anglican divine Richard Hooker, keeping apart from the Anglo-Catholics on one side and the Evangelical Puritans on the other.
I left home at the age of nineteen for two years’ National Service in the British Army with the “Glorious Glosters”—the regiment that wore a badge on both the front and the back of its headgear, commemorating the battle of Alexandria in 1801 when the British fought back to back against the French. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, I underwent a crash course in human life. I had never been farther abroad than France. Now I found myself in Aden, then Yemen, then Cyprus. I went on leave while in Nicosia and hitched my way on a Royal Navy minesweeper to Rome. Having very little money I found a room there in a locanda, the lowest grade of lodging house, round the corner from St. Peter’s, and survived on peaches at lunch and spaghetti dinners in a workers’ cafe. At night I would wander round the famous piazza, amazed. The great dome of the church seemed to float. Mediterranean culture exploded into my consciousness.
After the Army I went to Cambridge to read classics at Clare College. I loved Cambridge life from the moment I sat for the scholarship exams in rooms adjoining the Great Court of Trinity, where Wittgenstein had walked with G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell as they disputed questions of philosophy. At Clare I had swallow’s-nest lodgings at the top of the seventeenth-century Old Court—the first time I had ever had a place of my own. But the pursuit of excellence was challenging and competitive. We were like goldfish in a bowl.
A religious revival was in full swing within the university then. A substantial number of us had been seasoned by our two years in the services, and we had questions we wanted answered. Religious groups were thriving in the colleges, while one of the most gifted university chaplains Cambridge can ever have seen, Mervyn Stockwood, later bishop of Southwark, presided at the university church. He preached a social gospel with punch and flair, and seemed able at will to conjure up celebrities to come and speak. On Sundays he would pack the church to the balconies and doors.
Creeping up on me unawares, however, was a religious crisis that irrupted into the center of my life in my second year at the university. It became suddenly clear to me that the Christian values I revered rested on no basis other than my mother’s faith, which she had imparted to me. I had inherited my beliefs and valued them; now I had to make them my own or reject them. There were two roads before me. One led toward a personal affirmation of faith. But how could I do that? I could only await the disclosure to be given, not force it. The other road led to atheism. I had to make a decision about the fundamental human option.
Or could it be that I was seeking because I had already found? Perhaps it was not just a coincidence that in this conflict of mind I found myself one Sunday evening, while on vacation at home in Bristol, drawn to the church of St. Mary Redcliffe by Bristol Quay. Its beautiful Gothic architecture made Queen Elizabeth I, visiting it in 1574, describe it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.” Inside, Evensong—surely the most beautiful of all Anglican services—was in process. I joined the congregation. At a certain point, for the first and only time in my life, the heavens seemed to open and I answered affirmatively the call I heard, appropriating my Anglican baptism. It was a conversion, and it is to the Church of England that I owe it. For this reason I do not call myself a “Catholic convert.”
What had happened turned my life in a new direction. Under its impact I switched my academic course at Cambridge to theology, biblical studies, and philosophy. The approach in the Faculty of Divinity at the time was wholly Anglican, as were the staff. All of them were gifted, and some of them were brilliant, but as I journeyed on after my Anglican conversion, I felt uneasily that there was a hole at the center of my Christian life and work. Something was missing. And already when I read Catholic books, as I had now begun to do, I found that the hole was not there.
But the practice of the Catholic faith remained foreign territory to me. I never thought of venturing in. I never visited the Catholic chaplaincy near the market square, where the celebrated Msgr. Alfred Gilbey held court. Perhaps that was just as well. The monsignor was a legendary figure, attired in clerical frockcoat and black shovel hat, who announced that women undergraduates did not come under his care. In defiance of developers who had cast covetous eyes on the chaplaincy building, he had announced his intention to be buried in a grave in its inside courtyard, under the windows of the dining room where he and admirers had spent so many happy, convivial hours. Over his dead body, he would say with relish, would the developers get their way. I was to meet him later in his London club, after he retired, a volume of Debrett’s People of Today at his elbow, as it always was.
After leaving Cambridge in 1961, I gravitated toward religious journalism. And then the Second Vatican Council began. It was to hold four annual sessions, from 1962 until 1965. The world mourned when its convenor, Pope John XXIII, died in 1963, but from first to last it was always his council. What was happening in Rome was inseparable from his person. From the start, despite the risks of the adventure he was taking, he radiated confidence and assurance. Humanly speaking, I doubt whether I could readily have discerned Peter the Fisherman in the figure of Pius XII. But in his successor it shone out. You could almost see him throwing out his nets to catch all people of goodwill.
Suddenly the Catholic Church was making news everywhere. Secular papers that previously might have had the same journalist to cover religion and sports now reported the council in depth. Thrust and counterthrust on the floor of the council hall—the nave of St. Peter’s—made good copy. It was this very public debate that perturbed the future Pope John Paul II, then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, when he attended the council with his colleagues in the episcopate. In Poland they did things differently, discussing behind closed doors so that a front of unity was maintained against the Communist regime.
I followed the media accounts with astonishment. This church was not as I had imagined. It was a church of personalities. It was not like General Motors, a multinational organized from headquarters according to a blueprint for all the branches. The pope and the bishops were not above and outside the rest, as if on the top of a pyramid, but rather at the center of the circle constituted by the whole body. This was a communion of the servants of God, and the pope was the servant of the servants. Looking at Pope John, you saw that in action.
I was struck by the boldness of the proceedings in Rome. Here was a church, I saw, that felt itself to be intimately connected with the Upper Room where the first Christians received their calling, as if by an umbilical cord. It was as though it owned the tradition and safeguarded it, as well as being subject to it. So it felt able to develop that tradition and correct past interpretations of it and deductions from it, with a freedom that I found astonishing. It looked to me like a Reformation, Roman style. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” was the apostles’ formula at the first council in the church’s history, held in Jerusalem about AD 49, according to the biblical account in Acts 15:28. The Catholic Church could still say that two thousand years later. It did, and change snowballed.
Of course the church did not become something different. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. But the river flowing from the source in the Upper Room toward the sea of the Omega Point took a series of turns. Some of them were U-turns.
This church now announced that it understood itself to be traveling with all men and women of goodwill. It was reaching out to people like me. It no longer defined itself as a lighted castle on a hill, set above the murky flux of history, from which Christian knights would sally out to save whomever they could from secular evils and errors. It was a pilgrim with us on the road, ready to learn as well as teach. It had turned its back, said Pope John in his opening speech, on “those prophets of doom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.” After a period when it had seemed afraid of the modern world, it had regained its confidence, secure in the faith, as Pope John put it, that “Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and of life.”
I began to feel personally challenged by the council’s work. Shortly before the council ended, one Christmastide, I happened to be passing Westminster Cathedral in London. The Byzantine style adopted by the cathedral’s architect, J. F. Bentley, harks back to the era before the schism between Catholic West and Orthodox East. It also predates, therefore, the further schism between Catholics and Protestants. Another coincidence? I stepped inside.
It was the first time I had ever witnessed a Roman Catholic Mass in full flow, and I was held spellbound by the drama. I had had an idea that Catholics, like the Orthodox, did not frequently take Communion, but as the Mass drew to its conclusion, the whole congregation went forward to receive the sacrament. I remember to this day the thought that came to me unbidden: “This is the real thing.” I did not thereby spurn the Anglican Eucharist as unreal, for no one who knows the loving devotion with which Anglicans participate could imagine such a thing. But it struck me that here, in the Mass, was an action with a guaranteed validity that the Church of England did not have. I knew now why I had felt that there was a hole at the center of my Christian faith. I had been sensing the absence of sheer physical Christian reality: the here and now of the Catholic Church. When I left the cathedral, I was already a Catholic by desire.
Before I was received, there was a hiccup. The Catholic priests were anxious to repeat the baptismal ceremony, in case the words had not been said correctly the first time, they nervously explained, or the actions had not been performed accurately according to the rubrics. But refusing to have myself dispossessed of my Anglican baptism in this way, I defended my position by arguing from the principles now being promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, and in the end, with a good grace, they desisted.
On August 3, 1965, just before the end of the council, at the age of twenty-eight, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in St. Patrick’s, Soho Square. Would it have happened if there had never been a Pope John or a Vatican II? Humanly speaking, the answer must be no.
So what am I to feel now when Pope Benedict XVI unconditionally lifts the excommunications of the four bishops ordained illicitly by Archbishop Lefebvre? Lefebvre held that after fighting the principles of the French Revolution tooth and nail, the church had succumbed to liberalism and modernism at Vatican II and had let all these enemies in: liberty (religious freedom), equality (collegiality of pope and bishops, and the church as the people of God), and fraternity (ecumenism). Such a marriage with the French Revolution was an “adulterous union,” he declared, from which could only come “bastards” such as the new rite of the Mass.
The pope has asserted that the Lefebvrist bishops, who remain suspended from celebrating the sacraments licitly, must now show true acceptance of Vatican II. But how could they ever do that? The only practical possibility would be an ambiguous formula that would allow them to sign while continuing in the same belief and practice as before. It would not matter so much if this brought these bishops back within the embrace of the church universal. It would matter a great deal if it brought the church universal closer to them.
Were those like me deceived when we saw a vision of what the church truly was at Vatican II and followed it? Was the council a flash in the pan, a hiccup in the church’s life, as it were, before the Catholic organism, challenged, closed back in on itself? I could never believe that. The currents of renewal have affected the river of Catholic belief too deeply and strongly to be denied. But what has happened to the wholehearted affirmation of the council that Joseph Ratzinger memorably expressed in his brilliant little book Theological Highlights of Vatican II, published in 1966 just after the bishops had finished their work?
I do not want to feel an orphan. And there are so many like me.
Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Related: Ratzinger at Vatican II by John Wilkins
About the Author
John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.