Column by Jonathan Nagy
What do Saint Augustine, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Wayne, Buffalo Bill Cody, Saint Paul, Jane Roe (from the case of Roe vs. Wade), Knute Rockne, and Sir Alec Guinness all have in common? They were all converts to the Catholic faith, each in a very unique way. In fact, in the case of Sir Alec Guinness, who was born and raised Anglican in England being taught that Catholics were evil, the path to Catholicism was nothing short of a miracle. While filming Father Brown, based on G.K. Chesterton’s crime-solving priest, Guinness, who was portraying the title role, was dressed up as a priest, walking down the street. A child saw him and thought he was an actual Catholic priest. The child grabbed Guinness’ hand and walked with him down the street. He later explained how that changed him, saying, “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.” Not long after that moment, Guinness’ son Matthew contracted polio and was close to death. Desperate for help, Sir Alec began to frequent a local Catholic church for prayer, making a deal with God that if he healed Matthew, he would allow his son to become Catholic as he desired. His son was miraculously healed, Guinness held true to his word, and even converted to Catholicism as well, remaining faithful to the Church until his death.
I find myself fascinated with conversion stories, like the one above. Often, while I am working around the house or on the lawn mower, I listen to conversion stories that I find on YouTube. I enjoy hearing how individuals not only have come to the Church, but also how they are alive and on fire for the faith, spreading their joy to others. While our own Father Demetrius Gallitzin was baptized Catholic and taught Catholic principles in secret by his mother, he truly came into the faith on his journey to America. As the saying goes, Gallitzin didn’t let moss grow under his feet, and he worked tirelessly to not only live out the faith, but converted THOUSANDS to the Church. One holy man on a mountain in the wilderness against all odds converted an enormous number of people to Catholicism. Imagine the possibilities for us today to bring others to Jesus Christ!
I recently was in Dallas, Texas for my sister’s wedding. The day after the wedding, I woke early and walked across the still quiet and sleepy city to the Cathedral Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe for Sunday Mass. I had visited this church a few times before, but this was my first time there for Mass. I had been anticipating it for weeks, as I have recently come to develop a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The priest, who had only been ordained for a year and was on his first day on the job as parochial vicar for the Cathedral, gave a rousing homily, delivering words I will never forget. In his homily about living out the Catholic faith, he said, “The more you fit into the world, the less you fit in in the Church. The more you fit in in the Church, the less you fit in in the world. Many try to keep feet in both the Church and the world, but those feet are separating further and further apart. At the end of your life, where would you rather have your feet?” He went on to talk about how we need to be on fire for Jesus Christ, and how it is our duty to bring others to our Lord and Savior. He concluded, “Being Catholic is not easy, but it sure is worth it!” I left that church with so much renewed zeal, and I know others in attendance did as well.
Saint Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” How very true are those words today, nearly 1900 years after he spoke them! God lives through us and is present in every person, as we are all made in his image and likeness. We need to live life fully with a gracious heart, showing others by our example how to live as Jesus commanded. On that note, Saint Irenaeus also said, “As long as anyone has the means of doing good to his neighbors, and does not do so, he shall be reckoned a stranger to the love of the Lord.” I honestly cannot imagine rejecting the love of Jesus Christ, which is given wholly, freely, and without conditions. It breaks my heart to see others willfully doing the opposite of what Jesus would do, especially to others. Our charge from our Heavenly Father is to live our one life with the goal of meeting him in the afterlife, and we get there by helping others.
I have been privileged to witness many around me find their way to the Church, or even more fully develop their faith. The enthusiasm that they possess for what they have discovered and to which they committed themselves is truly inspiring! As wonderful has that has been, it has also been equally disheartening to see these on-fire Catholics meet other Catholics who shut down their zeal. Comments such as, “That will never work,” “We don’t need to try something new,” “Why would you want to do that,” or “Things are fine how they are, stop trying to do something else,” can truly derail one’s spirit, putting out the newly ignited fire. Sadly, these negative comments often come from “Cradle Catholics” who were born into the faith, go through the motions, and do not see these ideas as worthwhile. Yes, I am a “Cradle Catholic”, but I have been through my own winding faith journey to see that that mentality is truly harmful. Often, it takes an “outsider’s” view to truly see and appreciate what we have and how wonderful it is. The grandness of the Catholic Church is never lost on me, but I am always encouraged when a visitor is awe-inspired by our buildings and customs. I think back again to Father Gallitzin, who worked so hard to build Loretto into the community that it was. The locals themselves, who grew accustomed to everything, did not see the wonder that was created. However, visitors and “outsiders”, including prominent Church leaders, wrote about the marvel of what this simple priest had done in the most inhospitable of areas. This is the reason why Gallitzin was considered by Church leaders to become a bishop in several diocese across the country, but he declined these appointments in order to continue to building the Church in the Alleghenies. We all should take a page from his lesson book and double our efforts to continue to build the Church which he first established in our area!
If we recall the words to the theme song to the 1980s classic sitcom Cheers: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.” Those very same lyrics could and should be applied to the Church! The Catholic Church is a place where we can come together, take a break from the worldly concerns, and be with others who share our joys, sorrows, and faith. As the priest in Texas said, the Church should be a place where we want to fit in more than we want to fit in in the world. A place where we can come together to help each other, share a common goal, and unite in our faith in Jesus Christ! True, it isn’t easy, but believe me, it is worth it.
The conversions of the people I mentioned earlier did not happen by chance, but by God’s design and the free will of each person. Many of those dedicated their lives to bringing converts into the faith and demonstrating how the Catholic Church is a place where we can find comfort and hope. The world is a brutal and harsh place. Saint Augustine, one of the most famous Catholic converts wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Let us all live out the will of Jesus Christ by not only working to bring others to the faith, but help to relight the fire inside the souls of lifelong Catholics. Become that fire and spread the faith to all, showing them what Jesus Christ can do for them. If we do that, I can’t imagine anyone who would rather fit in in the world than in the Church!
Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.