Well-Known Converts

One of Christianity's most enduring images is Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. A zealous Jew, Paul (who was then known as Saul) had just witnessed the stoning of Stephen. He was traveling to Damascus when he was struck down by a bright light. He heard the voice of Jesus telling him to stop the persecution of Christians and to take up ministry. The event left Saul blind for three days, until one of Jesus' followers laid hands on him and he could see again. With his new sight, Saul gained a new faith. He dropped his Jewish name in favor of the Romanized Paul and began preaching Christianity. The Catholic Church considers Paul one of the Twelve Apostles and one of the most prolific writers of the early Church.

Conversion of an Empire

One of the most important conversions in early Christianity was that of Constantine, who became the emperor of Rome in 312, at a time when Christians were being persecuted throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine prohibited the persecution of Christians in his Edict of Milan. He made a formal conversion to Christianity on his deathbed.

The second Roman emperor to exert great influence over Christian affairs was Theodosius the Great (346–395). Theodosius was baptized in 380, after he nearly died from an illness. He declared that all of Rome should be Christian and granted privileges to the Catholic clergy.

Conversion of a Sinner

One of Christianity's great philosophers, St. Augustine, was born in 354, in what is now Algeria, and studied in Carthage. Although his mother raised him as a Catholic, St. Augustine abandoned his faith in favor of philosophy and an easy, immoral lifestyle.

Augustine was a young professor of rhetoric in Milan when he discovered the philosophy of Plotinus and St. Paul. He then regained his long-lost Catholic faith and returned to North Africa, where he chose to adopt a monastic lifestyle. St. Augustine's meditations on the nature of grace and his books, Confessions and City of God, remain influential today.

Royalty and Religion

King Henry IV of France (1553–1610) was raised as a Huguenot and participated in the War of Religions that split France before his reign. He became heir to the throne in 1584, but the powerful Catholic League refused to accept a Protestant on the throne. Henry then converted to Catholicism, in one of history's more controversial conversions. Henry IV's reign was notable for his interest in the common people and the conciliatory approach he took to all faiths.

King Charles II of England (1630–1685) converted on his deathbed after a reign marked by efforts to win religious tolerance. The son of Charles I, who was killed by Cromwell, Charles II spent his youth on the Continent, where he became interested in Catholicism. He was called back to the throne in 1660, at a time when Anglicanism was the state religion in England. Parliament opposed his attempts to overturn laws against Catholicism.

The Oxford Movement

In the middle of the nineteenth century, many British thinkers and theologians converted to Catholicism under the influence of the Oxford, or Tractarian, movement. The Oxford movement was formed among scholars at Oxford University who decried the liberalism of the Anglican church and worried about political trends that threatened its influence on English society.

One of the leaders of the Oxford movement, John Henry Newman, wrote a series of tracts that criticized the Anglican Church and praised the newly formed evangelical movements that he hoped would restore more Christianity in everyday life. Newman converted to Catholicism in 1845 at age forty-four and later went on to become a cardinal in the Church.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was influenced by the Oxford movement while he studied at Oxford. He converted in 1866 and joined the Jesuit Order. Hopkins worked among the poor of Liverpool and later became a preacher in London. He is best known for the original use of language in his religious poetry.

The Oxford movement was hotly debated in the United States. Episcopalian students were particularly interested. Many American theologians and thinkers converted, including Isaac Hecker, Orestes Brownson, and Clarence Walworth.

American Thinkers and Activists

As a young woman, Dorothy Day (1897–1980) was moved by the poverty of working people around her, and she became active in left-wing and labor movements. In 1927, after the birth of a daughter, she converted to Catholicism but was disappointed by the Church's lack of support for workers. She founded the Catholic Worker, an inexpensive paper covering labor news, during the Depression, while simultaneously operating a soup kitchen to help the thousands of unemployed.

The Catholic Worker took a pacifist stance during World War II, and it opposed the excesses of the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, Day was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and a supporter of Cesar Chavez's farm workers' movement. Her paper had a wide following among young activists and support from Church peace movements.

Cardinal Spellman of New York disagreed with Dorothy Day over her support of left-wing and labor causes. One flashpoint was a strike of gravediggers at the Calvary cemetery, in which Day picketed the cardinal's office. The cardinal asked Day to take the word Catholic out of the title of her newspaper. When she did not comply, the cardinal backed down.

Thomas Merton is one of the most influential American spiritual writers of the twentieth century; in fact, he described the process of his conversion in The Seven Storey Mountain, a book that has been translated into twenty-eight languages. Merton has written more than sixty books. Many, including The Silent Life, are often studied at Catholic retreats. Merton was a Trappist monk, one of the most ascetic orders. He was influential in the peace movement of the 1960s and interested in Eastern religions, promoting dialogue between the East and the West.

Other Literary Figures

Many famous writers have converted to the Catholic Church. One of the best-known recent converts is Malcolm Muggeridge. Although he is known as a former editor of Punch, he was also a journalist and commentator. Furthermore, Muggeridge is credited with making Mother Teresa's work known to the world in his role as BBC producer of the 1968 documentary, Something Beautiful for God.

Here is a list of other distinguished literary figures who chose to accept the Catholic faith:

  • G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936): Great British writer, essayist, and social historian who wrote books, poetry, plays, and thousands of tight, cogent newspaper essays in a style that was his alone.

  • Alice Meynell (1847–1922): British poet and essayist, author of the Rhythm of Life and Collected Poems, Meynell converted in 1868. She was friend and confidante of Coventry Patmore (1823–1896), another British poet and convert to Catholicism.

  • Alfred Noyes (1880–1958): British poet, writer of The Highwayman and The Lord of Misrule, who converted in 1927. In the Catholic world, he is also known for his insightful essays on the relationship between Christianity and science.

  • Robert Lowell (1917–1977): American poet who converted in 1940. His interest in Roman Catholicism is a thread through earlier volumes such as Land of Unlikeness and his Pulitzer Prize winner, Lord Weary's Castle.

  • Graham Greene (1904–1991): Novelist who was notable for having Catholic characters in his writing. His novel Brighton Rock is a study of modern evil.

  • Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966): Novelist whose Brideshead Revisited is concerned with religion without sounding like a morality tale.

Modern Converts

Prominent people continue to seek out the Catholic Church. Among American converts, there is a tradition of confessional literature, in which writers tell of their own struggles with faith and their reasons for settling on Catholicism.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former atheist and abortionist, reversed his position on abortion and joined the church in 1970. He once helped draft the laws liberalizing abortion. He is now a pro-life advocate.

Scott Hahn chronicles his personal journey to the church in Rome Sweet Home. David Currie, a former preacher's son from a fundamentalist family, tells his conversion story in Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic. In Surprised by Truth, Patrick Madrid, himself a convert to Catholicism, tells the stories of eleven Americans, of all differing backgrounds, who decided that the Church was the true way. Many of these seekers came from evangelical traditions. Some came from mainstream churches, and others had little religious education at all.

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