It started with a phone call from my son one summer’s evening.
“Mum, do you mind if I become a Catholic?”
I was taken aback but quickly gathered my senses and replied, “Well, it’s really nothing to do with me. It is your decision. Yours and Samantha’s.” I put down the phone and began to ponder our conversation. Being an Evangelical Christian at the time, I had received some negative teaching over the years about Catholicism, and yet my heart was at peace when I heard the news that my son was about to dive into the deep waters of Catholic spirituality. I would never have guessed that several years later, I, too, would be plunging into the same waters.
My own upbringing had not included church, neither was there a Bible in the home. It was only after a serious illness at the age of twelve that I was sent to a convent school. My time there as a teenager was a positive one and the Catholics that crossed my path were good, kind people who lived their faith. As the old saying goes, “they preached the gospel at all times, and when necessary, used words.” At school, I never went to Mass and, in retrospect, I think that perhaps my mother had forbidden it. I remember receiving a scolding when she found a veil in my satchel, and I had to apologize for sneaking into the school chapel. This was something that I did on a regular basis, as I was drawn to the peaceful Presence that lived there. I would venture in alone during the lunch break and pray. It was strange that my mother was against the Church, as her best friend was a devout Catholic. Even when I became a born-again Christian in 1971, she was displeased and showed no interest in religion.
Becoming Christian in Hong Kong
My actual conversion to Christianity happened in Hong Kong at a charismatic, ecumenical meeting. I asked Jesus into my life, hands were laid on me, and I experienced what we believed was baptism in the Holy Spirit, accompanied by speaking in tongues. The next ten years were exciting as I witnessed many miracles, especially among the Triads (Chinese organized crime) and drug addicts through evangelist Jackie Pullinger’s ministry. On returning to England, it was a struggle to find a church where I felt at home and, like many Evangelicals, shopped around until I found one that seemed friendly and open to the Holy Spirit’s gifts. In the meantime, eight years after my conversion my husband, Peter, had his own “Damascus road” conversion.
After starting our own business (manufacturing skin care products) we decided to move from Lincolnshire to Gloucestershire, which had been our home before living abroad. It was in this lovely county that we joined a non-denominational church. The people were friendly, and the praise and worship lively, but it gradually became clear that everyone there had their own interpretation of Scripture. The “Rapture” is very much at the forefront of the Pentecostal and Free Churches’ teaching and the End Times is a popular topic of conversation. And yet when we later joined an Anglican church we were told that this was a false teaching and there was no such thing as the Rapture. We were confused. It seemed that everyone was his or her own pope!
My son’s influence
My son went through six months of instruction before he was received into the Catholic Church! With Catholicism, apparently, it was not a matter of simply raising one’s hand to accept Jesus and then being left to make one’s own decisions — or, in actual practice, to accept the interpretations of whatever leader had brought one into the flock. My son attended a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) course at his local church and thrashed out his own misgivings, until he arrived at a place of understanding, acceptance, and peace. I watched him change from an angry young man into a gentle Christian soul. He developed a strong missionary zeal, giving me a missal, a rosary, and several books to read. His wife, a cradle Catholic, renewed her own fading faith. I think it was observing these changes that started me on my own journey home.
After a year of reading various materials, my interest was kindled. I devoured a biography of John Henry Newman and was intrigued to learn about this academic theologian’s conversion using both faith and reason. I had previously been led to believe that reason was an encumbrance to faith, but now began to wonder if God might have given us the gift of reason to use in our search for Him. I also read about the lives of St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi. Discovering these lively saints from the “Dark Ages” was a new and exciting experience for me, as I had for some reason believed, up to this time, that “true Christianity” was only rediscovered at the time of the Reformation. My mind was buzzing with new questions. I thought that I knew my Bible well, but now I wanted to hear the Catholic interpretation of every passage, particularly with regard to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I read John 6:53-69 with new eyes — particularly the passages wherein “many of his disciples” stumbled at His teaching and “drew back and no longer went about with him.” Maybe Jesus really did mean His disciples to take eating His flesh and drinking His blood literally. If not, then surely He would have recalled those who stumbled over a simple misunderstanding, and assured them, “It’s okay — it’s not to be taken literally, it’s just symbolic.” But, He did not.
Then there was the question of Mary. Like most Protestants, I believed that she had been little more than a surrogate mother to Christ and that she had borne additional children to her husband, Joseph, after the birth of Jesus. But if so, why did Our Lord ask the Apostle John to take care of her as He was dying on the cross? (Jn 19:26-27). If Jesus had multiple siblings, surely one of these would have been there to care for her if this was true. I also turned to Revelation 12:1-5 and read about the woman clothed with the sun, whose Child was the Great Serpent’s mortal enemy. Surely this woman must be Mary. Who else could it be? It was as if a veil was slowly being pulled from my eyes — a process as uncomfortable as it was wonderful.
I became hungry for knowledge and so I put the question to my husband, Peter: “What do you think about attending a RCIA course to learn about Catholicism?” He had experienced a lot of upheaval through the years already — church splits and so forth, often over trivial matters — and so, at this point, he simply said, “No. You can go if you like. I’m happy to go alone to the Anglican Church.”
Deciding to go ahead on my own, I broke the news to my son. He was surprised, but then told me that I would make “a brilliant Catholic,” which touched me. There was one snag. The RCIA course started in September and ran through the winter. It was during this time that we ordinarily lived in Spain, and so I started to doubt my decision.
In the meantime, Peter and I had made a last minute decision to take a two week winter cruise to the Canary Islands, little knowing what was in store for us. During such cruises, an interdenominational service usually takes place every Sunday. The service on this cruise was conducted by a crewmember and we found it bland and not very uplifting. We spotted on our daily notice sheet, however, that a Catholic Mass was offered every morning in the ship’s card room. Mainly out of curiosity, we decided to attend this as well. Father Gerard was a soft-spoken priest and led the service in a gentle, holy way. We felt at peace during the Mass, but did not receive Communion. As might be expected in a gaming room, there were no trappings — just a a small crucifix and a table adorned with a white cloth, which became a makeshift altar. We were drawn back the following day and this time we were invited, as non-Catholics often are, to step forward with the others to receive the priest’s blessing in lieu of Holy Communion. This turned out to be a powerful moment and, as we left afterward, I noticed that my husband was very touched.
“Do you want to go back and speak to Father Gerard?” I asked, half expecting him to decline in his usual reticent way.
“Yes,” he mumbled and we hurried back to speak to the priest.
As I stepped aside to let the two of them talk privately, I pondered what could have happened, suspecting that perhaps my logical, often skeptical husband had been touched by the Holy Spirit … and he had. Peter joined me in the corridor about five minutes later looking tearful.
“What happened?” I asked.
“When Father Gerard put his hand on my forehead and said the blessing, I was overcome. I think that I’ve been touched by the Holy Spirit.”
“Shall we ask if we can have a coffee and chat with him?”
We three met in a crowded ship’s coffee lounge the following morning and chatted amiably for over an hour. Both of us had lots of questions that we posed to him, all of which he answered succinctly. Feeling comfortable in his presence, I put a question to him.
“I had an unusual experience about a year ago.” I continued to tell him about a recurring picture or image that I had when I prayed. It was of a narrow way that was strewn with obstacles but which I felt compelled to take. Upon stepping on the path, it filled with rose petals. What could it mean?
Nodding and unsurprised, he simply wrote on a piece of paper: St. Therese of Lisieux. I had never heard of her but decided to do some research. My husband and I continued with our questions.
Father Gerard must have heard it all before. Protestants usually have similar misgivings about Catholicism, and we were no exception. The usual questions about Mary, the saints, purgatory, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist reared up.
“Why does the Bible refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters?” I asked.
Father Gerard explained that it was usual in that culture to refer to all of one’s kinsmen (such as cousins or nephews) as brothers, even though they may not have been actual siblings.
“What about purgatory and prayers for the dead? It’s nowhere in the Bible.”
Father referred us to a Scripture text in 2 Maccabees, in which prayers are offered for Jewish soldiers who had perished in a worthy cause — but with an ongoing sin still in their lives. Of course, I was unfamiliar with this passage, as it was not included in my own evangelically-oriented Protestant Bible. Later, I bought a more complete Bible which did contain these books that many later editions have removed.
Finally, I confided a deeper concern: I had become worried that if I embraced the Catholic Faith, I would no longer be allowed to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit as described in 1 Corinthians 12. To my relief Father told us that the Church accepted those gifts and that he too had been involved in the Charismatic Movement as experienced within the Catholic Church. He then explained that he was on sabbatical at this time and that he had felt the Lord telling him to go on this particular cruise. Was this one of those God-instances? Had this dear priest been sent to help us?
After the cruise, we returned home to Spain and attended Mass at our local Catholic church. The priest, a portly man with a jolly demeanor, spoke no English but an Irish lady stood by as well to read out the English responses, since the little church was packed with expatriates like ourselves. Almost everyone made a hasty retreat as soon as the service was over. This seemed so different from the Evangelical services that we had been attending, where people were always keen to approach new visitors in order to find out if you had been “saved.” Fortunately, coffee was served in a back room and so we wandered along in the hope that someone there could tell us whether any RCIA courses were available on the Costa del Sol. A handful of friendly folk had gathered and I got chatting with a lady with a familiar face. I had met this particular person once before at a Baptist Bible study. She had left that group devastated because someone there had told her she could not be a Christian if she attended a Catholic church. It was a shameful comment, probably made in ignorance. A kindly old lady figured out what Peter and I were asking about and scribbled something on a scrap of paper. Lux Mundi, she had written, followed by a phone number.
Lux Mundi is an ecumenical Catholic organization in the centre of Fuengirola, about twelve miles from where we live in Spain. Their centre is situated up a narrow street and tucked among the terraced houses with ornate wrought iron window bars and tiny courtyards. It would have been easy to miss it. Various organizations take advantage of the facilities for their courses, and the Church of Scotland uses the chapel on Sunday mornings. I phoned the centre and spoke to a volunteer who seemed stunned by my request. She handed me over to another volunteer who was not fazed and was very helpful. Friendly, she had a Geordie accent (northeast England).
“I did the RCIA course here with the nuns about six months ago,” she enthused.
“Great. Maybe my husband and I could do the same?” I asked.
“Oh no. You see the nuns have left — gone to Malaga. Why don’t you come to Mass and speak to someone on Sunday?”
It was agreed that this was what we would do. Joining the Catholic Church was certainly different from the charismatic or Free Churches where, if you raised your hand after an altar call, you were in. Unfortunately, many new members dropped out just as fast, especially if they received no teaching after their initial experience.
After struggling to park in bustling Fuengirola, we arrived at Lux Mundi hot and flustered. I could hear singing coming from the gathering of the clans over in the Church of Scotland chapel. Introducing myself to a lady behind the reception desk, I asked her about RCIA courses. An elderly gentleman wearing a short sleeved, open neck shirt sat next to her, listening with a benign expression on his weathered face.
At that moment the Geordie lady breezed in, a woman in her sixties, wearing a broad smile. We were introduced. She looked thrilled to see us.
“Meet Father Rodrigues — he’ll be saying Mass in a minute. He speaks a little English.”
Things were looking up — or so I thought. We shook hands with the gentleman in the open necked shirt and the younger lady behind reception spoke to him in Spanish, explaining that I wanted to convert to Catholicism. At this news, the priest’s face lit up and he shook my hand vigorously. I asked about the course again but was told that this could prove difficult, as there were no English speakers in the area qualified to do this. Feeling thwarted, we waited for the Scots to finish their service. I knew several of these fellow Britishers personally, who looked bewildered to see me there.
“You’ve missed the service,” one of them boomed.
“I know. We’re interested in becoming Catholic,” I replied in a whisper. You might have thought that I had told him that we were about to do some firewalking. We would get used to this.
The Mass was lovely. Father Rodriguez, now robed, read the liturgy with a thick Spanish accent in faltering English. The congregation sang the Lord’s Prayer, holding hands and the old priest joined us, which was touching. As usual, we could not actually receive Communion and so I wondered how long it would be before we could participate in the Mass fully.
In the meantime, I had done some research into the life of St. Therese and read her book, The Story of a Soul. Remembering my mental picture of the rose petals, I was brought to tears when I read about her long traditional association with roses. Unsure about the practice of asking a saint for their intercession, I braced myself and asked Therese for a sign. That day we had been invited out to lunch at a restaurant in Mijas. After the meal, I visited the ladies’ room and gasped. The whole of the surface of the vanity unit was covered with red rose petals. Then, as I left the restaurant, a waitress handed me a red rose. Coincidence? Maybe, but I felt that Therese was on my case!
Discovering the ordinariate
Two weeks later we were back in England and I phoned our large Catholic church in the town centre for advice.
“Yes, we have a RCIA course starting in September.”
“Oh, but we won’t be here in September.” I explained our situation, how we divided our time between two countries.
“You have a dilemma. Maybe you could do the course in Spain?”
We were back to square one. Peter and I can speak basic Spanish, are able to order food and do shopping, but felt sure that our vocabulary would not extend to theological topics. Maybe we should do a crash course in the language? Finally, Peter had a brainwave.
“The ordinariate,” he announced.
“The ordinariate?” I repeated.
“Yes. I’ll find out about it on the Internet.”
Let me explain.
The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham was established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, whilst retaining much of their heritage and traditions. With the ordination of women and subsequently the talk of allowing gay marriage in church, many traditional Anglicans felt disfranchised. The Pope saw a need ease the path to reunion for such Anglican brothers and sisters and so formed the ordinariate.
We decided to contact Father John, a former Anglican priest, who is now a Catholic priest in the ordinariate. Based in Malvern, it was not too far to travel and so Peter made an appointment to meet him in his home. We received a warm welcome and spent several hours discussing our situation, which he fully understood. This gentle, elderly man was kind and generous with his time and so we made an appointment to meet again the following week, this time taking some reading material with us. We found ourselves moving into a period of soul searching — of preparing for our First Confession and providing documentation of our status as baptized Christians via the Anglican Church.
First Confession and home at last
It felt strange as we prepared for our First Confession. As Protestants, we had not felt the need to confess to a priest before, and it was daunting as we prepared to bare our souls and our past sins to Father John. But we could not receive the Eucharist as Catholics until we had been to Confession. I had been taught as a Protestant that we only need to confess our sins to Jesus and that was more than sufficient. But somehow, being accountable to another human being, in the form of a priest, made the exercise more serious. It finally took place at Hanley Swan, a beautiful old church on the outskirts of Malvern. The church is ornate, in typical Catholic fashion and has many features designed by Augustus Pugin, famous as the interior designer of the Houses of Parliament. Father John put us at ease by suggesting that Peter and I make our confessions in the vestry rather than using the dark, somewhat intimidating confessional box. After receiving absolution, I felt clean and joyful, something that I had not expected. By now, I could not wait for my First Communion.
On July 5th, 2012, the day dawned when we were welcomed into the Catholic Church. Our son and his wife were our sponsors and attended the same church in Hanley Swan. It was a scorching day and the air conditioner on our car decided to pack up but we arrived serene anyhow, if a little crumpled. Father John greeted us warmly and proceeded to confirm us, anointing us with oil. It was with joy that we received our First Communion and we felt the Real Presence of Jesus, as promised, in the Eucharist.
In the meantime, we had been watching EWTN, an American Catholic television network. Tuning into The Journey Home program hosted by Marcus Grodi, it was fascinating to listen to the many testimonies of people, from all different backgrounds, who, like us, found their way to the Catholic Faith. There were Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Brethren, and even ex-atheist folk interviewed and, while each story had a common thread, every journey was an individual one. It was heartening to know that Peter and I were far from alone.
We had not told any of our friends in England about our plans, and only a handful in Spain knew. Now it was time to break the news to them. As we kept getting regular emails from our home church, inviting us to Bible studies and various events, we decided that we could not put it off any longer.
We have some close friends, who go to a different Anglican congregation from the one we used to attend. When we are back in England, we meet up regularly for meals and enjoy our time with them. They are godly people and evangelical in their outlook. They took the news very well, though my friend Heather did ask the usual questions about Mary. Feeling very much the novice, I tried to answer her questions.
“No, we don’t worship Mary. We ask her to pray for us.”
I could tell that, despite their politeness, they thought it strange that we should be doing such a thing and I braced myself for more surprised shock as we broke the news to our former vicar. We actually had a very warm response. He told us that he knew that we would not rush into making such a decision. He mentioned that when he prayed about our decision to become Catholics, it felt right, and that he hoped we would enjoy the deep waters of spirituality that the Catholic Church offered. It was a wonderful, encouraging reply.
Visiting another couple with whom we had been close, we were nervous that they might disapprove. She had been an Evangelical missionary in her younger days and both were keen Bible scholars. To our surprise, they too took the news well and, after answering, once again, the usual questions about Mary, we left feeling reassured.
“Don’t lose touch will you?” Grace asked.
I was happy. At this stage, we did not have a single friend at the Catholic church. It would have been a lonely road but the peace that I was experiencing was worth any losses along the way. We are still in touch with our Protestant friends and appreciate their loyalty. I am also grateful for the mostly positive input of the Evangelical Christians — nothing on the journey has been wasted, particularly their love of the Scriptures.
It is strange but since my conversion, I often meet Catholics who have wandered away from the Church. I hope that the Lord will use me to encourage them to make the journey back home.