My mainline Presbyterian upbringing in southern New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s was typical of many others at the time. The people in our church tended to be white Anglo-Saxon types. There were many Catholics in my small town, but they were usually of Irish, Italian, or Polish descent. On Sunday morning, the Catholics and Protestants were as separated from each other in America as they had been on the other side of the ocean. That seemed to be fine with both groups.
During my years of higher education, I never actually rebelled against the Presbyterian Church. In typical fashion, though, my interest in church matters waned during my high school and college years. It returned once I started law school.
In the next thirty years or so, I became very active in a Presbyterian church, serving as an elder and teaching adult Sunday School classes. Calvinistic Reformed theology rarely surfaced in my local Presbyterian church. I was not attracted to it when it did get mentioned.
A personal connection to historic Christianity
My first awakening to the connection between family history and my personal religious heritage came during a Presbyterian All Saints’ Day sermon. The sermon was about everyday saints, such as parents, who had played a significant role in our lives. I had never thought much about the idea of receiving specific religious instruction at home. My parents were good Protestant Christians, but any direct religious instruction they offered was relatively rare. I came to learn that in my father’s family in particular, there was not really a single, historic, family faith for him to pass along. The religious background of his family and his ancestors was too varied or in many cases, nonexistent. My mother had a more focused religious upbringing in the Southern Baptist Church, but any religious instruction from her was not expressed in terms of that denomination’s beliefs.
Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that I, like many others of my baby boomer generation, did not think much about who my ancestors may have been and what they may have been like, much less what their religious inclinations may have been. Pope Francis recently noted that current-day youth are “crushed under the weight of the present [without] a memory of the past…” (La Repubblica, Oct. 1, 2013). This was also true for many of my generation, including me, especially in the sense of my being connected to specific people in the past. The absence of a passed-down religious tradition created a missing sense of heritage, religious and otherwise. Indeed, any knowledge of my own personal heritage was so completely missing that I did not even realize it was missing!
The faith of my ancestors: Quakers and Methodists
I first became interested in genealogy and family history in the early 1990s, having heard that I was related to James Fenimore Cooper, the famous American author. The first Fenimore immigrants were Quakers who had left England for New Jersey in the late 1670s. I found that my grandmother’s ancestors had included many other early New Jersey Quakers.
I began regarding family history, not just a matter of collecting the names of ancestors, but as a source of information about the formative influences in one’s own life. As I learned about the history of the Quakers, and about my own Quaker ancestors, I admired their faithfulness, though their particular brand of the faith was not something to which I felt called. Viewed from our present historical distance, the Quakers of the late 1600s seem simple, devout, peaceful, and harmless, but their theology was actually rather radical. The website of a modern-day Quaker group that claims to retain the beliefs of the earliest Quakers declares that “[because] all people — Quaker or not — have always had direct and immediate access to God, we believe that all other sources of religious understanding are inessential and subordinate, including scriptures, church authority, tradition, reason, and formal religious education.” As a result, Quaker beliefs “dispense with rites and ceremonies, ritualized sacraments, sacred books and buildings, creeds, clergy, and holy days.”
Still, for me, it was a ground-breaking discovery to find that I did have a confirmed connection with individual people, identifiable by name, who belonged to a specific denomination. The religion of my ancestors transitioned over time from Quakerism to the Methodist Church, a new denomination that was similar in many ways to Quakerism, but without the latter’s more radical concepts. My paternal grandmother, born in 1891, had probably been a Methodist as a girl, but by the 1950s, she and her daughter (my aunt) had both become Christian Scientists, a sect that peaked in the mid-1930s. I can remember well seeing my grandmother reading the writings of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. In later years, though, both my grandmother and my aunt lost interest in that sect. The small congregations to which they belonged have since vanished.
The faith of my ancestors: Anglicans in the attic
The story was somewhat different for the ancestors of my paternal grandfather. By the 1880s, this set of my ancestors was connected to the same local Methodist church as my grandmother’s family, but instead of coming from a Quaker background, they had previously been loosely connected with the Episcopal Church.
My original Woodington ancestor came from England to Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. The first several generations of Woodingtons in the United States identified with the Episcopal Church. My Woodington ancestors were probably Anglicans before they left England (making them closer to being Catholics than any of my other Protestant ancestors).
My grandfather was not a churchgoer by the time I knew him, but one of his great-grandfathers had been a lay Methodist minister in the late 19th century, and one of his grandmothers was ordained a deaconess in 1894 in the denomination known as the “Christian Church.” Despite this background, though, my grandfather and the previous several generations of his Woodington ancestors apparently had little church involvement.
My father was baptized and confirmed a Presbyterian at the age of 18. This was the first known expression of religious interest by one of my Woodington ancestors in over a hundred years. My father’s choice of a church was not driven by any connection of the family with the Presbyterian Church, because no such connection existed. All told, and extending back at least as far as 1800, the religious history of my father’s ancestors showed no discernible attachment to Calvinistic doctrine.
This realization of the relatively broad religious background of my ancestors went a long way to softening me to the claims of the Catholic Church. In addition, I was beginning to tire of the limited message being proclaimed in my Presbyterian church. By the early 2000s, it seemed that almost every sermon ended with a reference to one very specific kind of Christian activity, usually work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. This is part of the Gospel, to be sure, but it is only a part. To make matters worse, the sermons often ended, not with a call to such work, but with self-congratulation to the congregation for engaging in it. In a congregation of over a thousand people, the emphasis was on a field of activity that applied only to a few.
At the same time, the sermons and Scripture readings were beginning to reflect the gender confusion that marks our era. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that our church used had been updated in 1989 to make it more gender-neutral. That was not enough for some of our clergy, though, who decided that since God is neither male nor female, then no gender-specific word should ever be used to describe God. This led to the rewriting of Scripture on the fly as it was read, using such phrases as “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten, uh, Son…” One sermon had the phrase in it, “One day, God said to Godself…” My sister asked me during a visit, “Doesn’t God get a pronoun in this church?” The effect, it seemed to me, was to depersonalize God.
This seemingly minor annoyance started me on what I thought would be simply a search for a church that reliably adhered to the words of Scripture in the readings. I was attracted to the Episcopal church down the street — and all the more so because my wife, Elizabeth, had grown up Episcopalian and had never quite abandoned that attachment — but that denomination was even closer than the Presbyterians to splitting up over such matters as gender issues!
Since I had never desired to get involved with any of the more strictly “Reformed” Presbyterian churches, much less with any of the evangelical denominations, I could readily see that the Catholic Church was becoming my only option. Unlike many other converts, I did not find this to be a frightening or unwelcome prospect. I proceeded to read practically all of the popular apologetic writers of our time: Scott Hahn, Thomas Howard, Patrick Madrid, Steven Ray, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and Marcus Grodi, among others. I also read some of the works of earlier converts, such as Cardinal Newman and Ronald Knox, as well as Cardinal Gibbons’ 19th century book, The Faith of Our Fathers. I was convinced by all of them. One of the first things I learned about the Catholic Church was that it had never changed its doctrines concerning faith and morals to conform to fads or trends of any given era. As a lifelong Protestant, I had been made quite aware of the corruption of certain popes, but I had never known that even the worst popes did not change Church doctrine.
I also learned that the on-the-fly Scripture alterations that annoyed me were symptomatic of the larger Protestant problem of looking primarily to the individual as the source of authority on matters of faith and morals. In fact, this practice of altering Scripture took that idea a step further, because it not only involved individualized interpretations of Scripture, it also involved individualized amendments of Scripture to conform to what those Protestant ministers believed Scripture should have said.
There were also some supernatural things that were happening without my really realizing it. Around the end of 2005, I had read Peggy Noonan’s John Paul the Great, which had a lot to say about the Rosary. I did not even know exactly what the Rosary was, but soon thereafter had the opportunity to buy a new book, Gary Jansen’s The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved. Jansen suggested an adaptation of the Rosary for Protestant believers, substituting the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) for the Hail Marys. This was comfortable enough, so from time to time, I would say the prayer in that format. Soon, though, I decided to become more daring, actually saying the Hail Marys, and hoping (as Scott Hahn had hoped) that this wouldn’t anger God! I can’t remember how often I actually recited a Marian Rosary in those days, but am firmly convinced that the Blessed Mother acted on these prayers, even though they came from someone who was not even sure what he was asking for.
By the spring and summer of 2007, I had learned all I needed to know to realize that it was time to make the jump to being Catholic. I checked the website of the nearby Catholic parish, found out when RCIA would start, and signed up. This parish was near the University of South Carolina. We had brilliant RCIA teachers: a nanophysicist, a biologist — both nationally known — and an outstanding medical student. Rounding it out was a faithful parishioner who had been a high school teacher for many years. The insights of those four teachers only served to ratify the decision I had already made.
I was also fortunate to have a wife who was quite willing to enter the Catholic Faith at the same time I did. I was therefore spared the domestic difficulties that many converts have experienced. Since joining the Church, she has done so much work for the parish that I often wonder whether my only purpose in life was to assist her in becoming Catholic!
When I was well on the way to being received into the Church, an unexpected form of historical encouragement appeared. Somehow I became aware of Eamon Duffy’s book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580. (Note: This book can be purchased through the CHNetwork by calling 740-450-1175 or online at www.chresources.com. Only a limited quantity is available.) Duffy’s thesis, backed by considerable historical evidence, was that
[L]ate medieval Catholicism [in England] exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation. Traditional religion had about it no particular marks of exhaustion or decay, and indeed in a whole host of ways, from the multiplication of vernacular religious books to adaptations within the national and regional cult of the saints, was showing itself well able to meet needs and new conditions. (p. 4)
This came as quite a surprise, because over time I had acquired just the opposite impression: that the English people by the time of the Protestant Reformation were clamoring to be rid of Catholicism. Now, for the first time, it occurred to me that many, if not most, of my English ancestors of the early Reformation period may not have been “intentional Protestants,” that is, people who affirmatively split from existing versions of Christianity. Instead, they were more likely to have had Protestantism forced on them from the top down. Catholicism in England was destroyed, not abandoned.
A few years earlier, I had read the following description by Fr. Andrew Greeley of what he called “the Catholic imagination:”
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace. (The Catholic Imagination, p. 1)
Professor Duffy and Fr. Greeley were talking about different aspects of the same thing. It was a major surprise to find that the imaginations of the English people five hundred years ago were deprived of this richness, not because the English thought there was something wrong with it, but only because it was forcibly pulled away from them. As for me, I had already decided that I preferred this “enchanted world” to the more austere Protestant worldview in which I had been raised. It was now becoming apparent that there was no theological or historical reason that offered any compelling reason to remain where I was.
A Font of Conversion
At this point it is necessary to backtrack a few years. In the early 2000s, I visited England for the first time. I had been an Anglophile since my teens. Reading the works of C.S. Lewis in my 20s was one of many experiences that put England at the center of the world, as far as I was concerned. One of the many factors in my conversion was an incident that occurred during that first visit to England.
That trip to England lasted only a few days. I stayed in Kent with family members who were also visiting England. On the first day, we visited Canterbury Cathedral, which I viewed as an interesting Anglican church with a long history, but nothing more.
Driving around a day or two later, we came upon St. Augustine Church of Brookland, a few miles east of Rye. That small church had been built around 1250. In it was a leaden baptismal font that was at least nine hundred years old.
I was not so far gone as to believe that “God is an Englishman,” to quote the title of a 1970 novel. Still, I came to a realization when I saw the nine hundred-year-old font in the Kentish church: Even if God had been an Englishman, so to speak, He would have been a Catholic long before He was an Anglican, and for a much longer time. St. Augustine of Canterbury had evangelized England from Rome starting in 597 A.D., and Catholic Christianity had already existed in England by the 200s.
All of this brought home to me that the Anglican Church, which started only in the 1530s, was an upstart. It was not at all the historic church of England. Even younger were the Puritan, Presbyterian, and Quaker faiths, whose adherents separated themselves from the Anglicans between the mid-1500s and the mid-1600s.
The split between England and Rome, now nearly five hundred years in the past, occurred so long ago that it is easy enough for an unthinking observer of history (such as myself) to fail to realize that the Christians of England must have been something other than Anglicans in the many centuries before the early 1500s. Prior to seeing the font, I simply had not let it sink in that virtually all Christians in England were Roman Catholics prior to the time of Henry VIII, and that they had been Roman Catholics for the previous thousand years or more. Henry himself had no desire to impose Protestant theology and practices. That happened only after Henry’s death in 1547.
All of this demonstrated the truth of John Henry Newman’s oft-quoted statement, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” For me, a good deal of this historical realization unfolded from the simple sight of a nine hundred-year-old baptismal font in Kent.
Did I have Catholic ancestors?
With all of the English Protestants in my background, extending back for almost 500 years, it once had seemed like a stupid question to ask whether I had Catholic ancestors. The answer would be: “Of course not.” I mentioned to an RCIA instructor that I had identified many of my ancestors, and had not seen a Catholic among them. He pointed out that my Christian ancestors before the Reformation would all have been Catholics! So the question of whether there are Catholics in the family tree of a person of English ancestry is indeed kind of a stupid question, but for the opposite reason than I had originally thought. The answer is: “Of course!”
This meant that my more distant ancestors, like those of anyone else of primarily English origin, include literally thousands of English Catholics who were alive in the early 1500s, just before England ceased to be a Catholic country. There are potentially ten or even twenty thousand such ancestors in the family tree of a person born in the middle of the 20th century.
Of all of those thousands who were living when Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, I know something about just one family, that of John Fenimore (c. 1480-1541) and his descendants. They lived in the area of two villages that were about two miles apart in south central England. Both villages had parish church buildings by the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. There is no reason to doubt that the Fenimores of the 1400s and early 1500s attended these Catholic parish churches in their home villages. The family was probably in the area as far back as the Norman Conquest in 1066. If so, they would have worshipped in those church buildings when they were first built in the 1100s or 1200s.
It would be interesting to know how the Fenimores fared in the religious turbulence in England that started with Henry VIII, but no information has yet been found. All that can be said with any certainty is that the earliest known Fenimore ancestor, John Fenimore (c. 1480-1541), almost surely was a Catholic, simply because everyone in his era was a Catholic. Whatever may have happened in this family after the split caused by Henry VIII, it is virtually certain that prior to that split, the ancestors of my English Protestant ancestors were English Catholics, and in great numbers.
An incomplete education
Once I slowly came to the realization that my more distant ancestors were so obviously, and probably nearly unanimously, English Catholics, I then became interested in learning how my Protestant ancestors came to be Protestant. I located one of the Sunday School books I had read as an adolescent, The Church of Our Fathers by Dr. Roland H. Bainton. Bainton was a Protestant scholar of the Reformation. The Church of Our Fathers sets forth his belief that when a church becomes corrupt or stale, the faithful should split from it and establish something new.
This seemed to make sense, but it disregarded two Catholic principles that a person raised Protestant would probably not know. The first is the doctrine of apostolic succession in a direct line from the Apostles, and the second is the doctrine that the Catholic Church is protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error in matters of faith or morals. For one who believes in those doctrines, it follows that the Roman Catholic Church is not an organization that one can simply abandon if its leadership becomes flawed or corrupt. Instead, it is a Body against which Jesus promised the gates of hell cannot prevail (Matthew 16:18). He promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the disciples “into all the truth” (Jn 16:13). The remedy for the flaws of this unique institution simply cannot be for one to leave it and set up another organization that supposedly corrects the flaws.
In time, I came to realize that I had been schooled in the American rendition of a version of English history that had been “erected to justify the English Reformation and its aftermath” (Joseph Pearce, Race with the Devil, p. 27). In the version I was taught in South Jersey, heroic Puritans and Quakers stood firm against wrongheaded establishment Anglicans. It was a view of history written by the winners, or at least those who “won” for the next few centuries. I managed not to notice that the two sects were so divided that Puritans persecuted Quakers to the point of death.
On Christmas morning 2007, after I had started RCIA, I had an experience of being in communion with my Catholic ancestors and their experience of the faith.
I went to the 8:15 a.m. Mass on Christmas morning. I had only attended a handful of Masses by then, but was still struck immediately by the near-total silence in the Gothic church when I walked in. As I rounded the furthest back column on the right side of the church, the early sunlight of a winter morning filtered through the stained glass and shone brightly into that corner. The entire picture bore some resemblance to what I imagined my ancient Catholic ancestors might have seen centuries ago.
On that silent, sunlit, Christmas morning, I felt a connection to long-ago generations of Catholic ancestors. I realized that I would soon be entering into communion with my ancestors and their faith — not just my spiritual ancestors, but my biological ancestors as well.
We were received into full-communion with the Church at the 2008 Easter Vigil. That particular Holy Saturday was a contentious day in our household, with arguments breaking out over things that really did not relate to the faith. Perhaps the Devil wanted to get one last shot at us. I have heard of others who have had similar experiences just prior to their reception. Matters weren’t helped when we got an ad that very day from First Things, a Catholic magazine, with a quote on the envelope (intended to be ironic), “You Catholics are all going to Hell.” I declined to accept this as a “sign.” Instead, we made it through the day, joyfully entered the Church, and with God’s help will continue to grow in grateful faith.