High on the list of most-asked questions that apologists receive is “How do I convert” the child who has left the Church, the friend who has come out as a homosexual, the local anti-Catholic who is smearing the Church in the media, the goodhearted non-Christian who is just not interested in the claims of Christ? Inquirers want books, CDs, or DVDs to hand to these people, evidently convinced that a few well-crafted arguments will win over others either to the Catholic Faith or to a more orthodox observance of that Faith.
The problem is that the books or CDs or DVDs—however helpful they may be for those who already accept their premises—are rarely convincing to anyone who does not want to be convinced. Counterarguments can be readily found to bolster any position you prefer to believe. There must already be, or develop over time, an openness to persuasion, and that is why we often tell people that it is the Holy Spirit who converts people. And that is a true answer. As St. Paul observed:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6–7).
True though it may be, the answer that only the Holy Spirit converts souls is hardly satisfying. It makes the Holy Spirit seem fickle, causing conversions without regard for the persons who planted and watered and prayed for a harvest.
There is also the question of desire. Why would we experience a desire to accomplish something that is impossible for us to accomplish? The human desire to convert someone to one’s own way of thinking or living seems to be universal, almost as if it was a God-given part of the human condition. According to C. S. Lewis:
The Christian says, Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: Well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: Well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: Well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings; and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same (Mere Christianity).
And, I have to admit, I too have found it unsatisfying to have to answer that we have no role to play in whether or not someone we love converts. At the very least, such a conclusion can tempt people to give up on evangelization. In theory anyway, it could suffocate the missionary impulse of the Church, to which Jesus gave the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matt. 28:19–20).
With that in mind, I decided to look at some of the conversion testimonies the Church has gathered over 2,000 years. Perhaps there was a common thread that could shed some light on this problem.
Later this week, on January 25, we’ll celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, so let us start with him. St. Luke tells the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, with the famous account of the divine humbling of the young Jew, also known as Saul, who was “so extremely zealous . . . for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). But that is not where Saul’s story begins. Saul first appears on the scene in Acts at the stoning of the Christian deacon, Stephen:
They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon [Stephen]. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:57–58).
In the very midst of being stoned to death, Stephen prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59–60). Two chapters later we read the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion. Near the end of Acts, the convert Paul confesses:
Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him (Acts 22:19–20).
A few centuries later, a Christian mother named Monica was deeply worried for her wayward son, Augustine. For many years Augustine broke his mother’s heart with his antipathy to the Catholic Faith and with his dissolute life:
Monica and Patricius had three children: Navigius, who seems to have been an exemplary son; Augustine; and Perpetua, a daughter, who became a religious. Augustine, the more brilliant of the sons, was sent to Carthage, so that he might develop his talents and become a man of culture. He took to learning naturally but he also spent time in youthful carousing. This caused his mother great anguish, and when he returned to Tagaste, she disapproved so strongly both of his loose living and of his espousal of the popular heresy of Manichaeism that she refused at first to allow him to live at home.
Monica despaired over Augustine’s downward spiral, and she poured out her anguish to a sympathetic bishop. In words of comfort that would be remembered in all the centuries to follow, this bishop told Monica, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”
St. Henry Walpole
Perhaps you have not heard of Henry Walpole. He is a rather obscure sixteenth-century Jesuit priest and a martyr of the anti-Catholic persecutions in Elizabethan England. As a young man, Walpole was reputedly a “wild, generous-hearted youth” and something of a fashionisto—until the day his white doublet was stained by the blood of one of the Oaten Hill Martyrs, whose executions apparently were considered not much more than an amusing afternoon entertainment for the crowds who gathered to watch them die. (Nota bene: Some popular accounts place Walpole at the execution of St. Edmund Campion, but there seems to have been confusion between Edmund Campion and a lesser-known priest named Gerard Edwards who used the name “Edward Campion” as a pseudonym.)
Being splashed by a martyr’s blood had a transforming affect on Henry Walpole’s life. He quit his law practice and left England to join the Jesuits and study for the priesthood. Eventually he would travel back to England and follow his patron martyrs to the Tower and to death by hanging, drawing, and quartering. He would eventually be canonized in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
The bane of St. Thomas More‘s otherwise happy family life was his daughter Margaret’s husband William Roper. As a young man, Roper was taken into More’s household. Since Roper was known to have been a legal clerk, it is possible that he came to More’s attention when they crossed paths as each pursued careers in law. We might speculate that Roper was a protégé of More’s, what today we might call an intern. In any event, while living in More’s household, Roper and Margaret More fell in love and married.
Much to Thomas More’s dismay, though, young Roper soon became enamored of Lutheranism. He was so open about his adherence to Lutheranism that he was summoned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to explain himself, which no doubt added embarrassment to More’s consternation. Tension ran high in More’s household as he and Roper went round and round, debating each other repeatedly. Finally More had had enough. He said to his daughter:
I have borne a long time with thy husband. I have reasoned and argued with him in these points of religion, and still given to him my poor fatherly counsel, but I perceive none of all this able to call him home. And therefore, Meg, I will no longer dispute with him, but will clean give him over and get me to God and pray for him.
St. Thomas More eventually was martyred for his adherence to the Catholic Faith. As for William Roper, he eventually reconciled with the Church, attributed his reversion to his father-in-law, and would become a primary source of information about More’s life.
The Common Thread
What then is the common thread in these conversion stories? It seems to me that the common thread is suffering. The passion of St. Stephen burrowed deep into the conscience of one of the witnesses to his death, eventually contributing to the conversion of the man who would become St. Paul. It was not just St. Monica’s prayer for her son but also her suffering that would save his soul. The bishop told her that “It is not possible that the son of so many tears [in other words, ‘so much suffering’] should perish.” Henry Walpole could easily have thrown away his bloody doublet and thought no more about it, but something about the suffering of the men he watched die birthed in him a desire to follow their example. When religious debates stopped being useful, St. Thomas More turned to prayer for William Roper. He also embraced the suffering that would lead to his own martyrdom. It is reasonable to speculate that both More’s prayer and the suffering that he endured contributed to bringing his son-in-law back to the faith.
You say you desperately want the conversion of a loved one. Ask yourself why you want this conversion. Do you merely want a trophy for your mantle? Or do you want to see the rebirth of a soul for Christ? If you want to see a soul reborn, you have to be willing to labor hard for that rebirth. As any mother can tell you, childbirth labor is difficult and painful. If you want an image of just how difficult and painful labor can be, remember the comedian Carol Burnett‘s analogy: “Giving birth is like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head.”
Keep in mind that I am not suggesting self-flagellation or inflicting upon yourself artificial, arbitrary suffering of your choosing. Rather, take the trials that God allows you to experience, whether they be mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, and offer up the suffering caused by those trials to him for the conversion of your loved one. Just as Simon of Cyrene was conscripted into a trial he did not seek out or want, see the trials God gives you to be a means of helping Christ carry his cross (cf. Luke 23:26). It is not possible that those for whom you suffer so much in union with Christ should perish.
St. Thomas Aquinas once was presented with pages and pages of parchment to fill with a requested treatise on how to become a saint. He wrote down two words and was finished. Asked how to become a saint, he is said to have written, “Will it.” The answer to how you or I can convert a soul is even shorter: