Nothing can match this collection of essays on conversion
By HERMAN GOODDEN
Released last month from Justin Press, a new Roman Catholic publisher based in Ottawa, is Canadian Converts, featuring first-person essays from 11 disparate and eloquent Canadians, recounting their religious searches which all have culminated in the Roman Catholic church.
Included in this distinguished roster of Canadian scribes is the London-born Jasbir Singh, a child of Sikh immigrants whose search for ultimate meaning and truth was greatly intensified when he narrowly escaped death in a Japanese earthquake 14 years ago, and Ian Hunter, professor emeritus in the University of Western Ontario faculty of law, biographer of Malcolm Muggeridge, Hesketh Pearson and Robert Burns, and a frequent contributor to Canadian opinion-editorial pages, including those of The Free Press.
I have read a number of such essay collections before and few of them can match this one, both for the erudition of writing on display and the wide span of backgrounds in the writers themselves.
Included are the religious confessions of an incarcerated newspaper magnate (Conrad Black), founding editors of two remarkable magazines (the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, and the still-living David Warren who founded the now defunct Idler and today pens a widely read column for the Ottawa Citizen), the founder and superior of Toronto's Oratory of St. Philip Neri (Rev. Jonathan Robinson), a mother of five who has a master of science in biochemistry (Amy Lau), the Jewish-born daughter of a Holocaust survivor who writes children's books about her family's struggles in Communist Hungary (Kathy Clark), a theological author and professor of religious thought at McGill University (Douglas Farrow), an Opus Dei priest and high school chaplain who was led to faith by the compelling example of a childhood friend of unaffected Catholic piety (Eric Nicolai), and a professor of English literature and Horace Walpole scholar whose abiding moral sense drove him on from one pleasant enough denomination to another in search of a church that cared more for eternal truth than fleeting subjective feelings (Lars Troide).
Considering that five of the 11 writers here considered hailed from the Anglican church, one can appreciate the astuteness of Pope Benedict's special invitation to disaffected Anglicans to ease their conversion to Rome. And observing that the second greatest number of these writers -- three -- came via the Lutheran church, one wonders if the Bavarian-born Benedict, hailing from the land of the first great schism of the Reformation, will be able to resist directing his next overture to the church that bears the foremost Protestant's name.
As a convert myself, I'm always interested to see how others managed to grope their way along the path to Rome. Though our destination may be the same, as this collection attests, there is tremendous disparity of approach.
There are no generalizations that hold up for all, but it's interesting to observe how often it is a believer's less-utilized faculty that convinces them to make the leap of faith -- the intellectual whose rational and methodical approach is blown to smithereens by a mystical experience; the constant reader who becomes convinced not by a well-formulated argument but by coming across the inexplicable glory of a radiant sunflower; the person who's never given much thought to what they believe until they hear an assertion of faith that they can't stop pondering.
Recalling earlier collections of conversion stories, I recognize that all of them hailed from Britain or the United States, which would seem to validate the publisher's claim that this is the first such collection in Canadian literature.
Wanting to ring a fresh variation on personal essay collections from Catholics, publisher Frank Sheed threw together a collection of memoirs in 1954 from lifelong communicants, which he called Born Catholics, and sure enough, it wasn't one of Sheed & Ward's better-selling titles.
As a "cradle Catholic," Fr. Raymond DeSouza was not eligible to contribute an essay to this book, so instead he wrote the introduction, explaining these tales' appeal to one who has "never doubted the truths taught by the Catholic Church." Not the least of these, he says, is, "There is encouragement that despite all the manifest troubles here and there in the Catholic Church, she still attracts those seeking Jesus Christ."