Every time I read, in This Rock or elsewhere, the personal accounts of people who have been received into the Catholic Church after a long spiritual journey, I am touched and impressed. I know that other readers must be, too. But I have come to realize there is another story that also needs to be told. It is the story of the “cradle Catholic,” the person like me who was baptized as a child and brought up in a Catholic family, who lives in the faith, and whose spiritual journey is also part of the story of the universal Church. I mention this because we are so often told “Oh, but you were brought up Catholic. You’ve never really had to think things out for yourself. You’ve never had your faith seriously challenged.”
This essay, then, is not just about “my story.” It’s a testimony from someone representing all whose experiences are similar: to those many who were taught the faith in childhood and who live it as adults.
St. Elphege’s: 1952 to 1980
My baptismal certificate is a bleak document that somehow speaks of the Catholic Church in the Britain of the post-war era. It is a small folded sheet of ordinary notepaper, with the church’s address in one corner and in the center of the page—typed on an evidently old machine—a statement to the effect that Joanna Margaret Nash was baptized at St. Elphege’s Church, Wallington, in September 1952. It’s a sharp contrast to the rather grand document of my husband’s baptism, a beautiful, illuminated certificate from the Anglican church in Malaya, where his father was serving with the army, with an annotation added some years later stating that he had been received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
In 1980 we married at St. Elphege’s, that same parish—although not the same building—where I had been baptized all those years before, and where I had received my First Holy Communion and been confirmed. The new church (built some 10 years before our wedding) was and is quite hideous. It has since been made slightly less ugly by the creation of a central aisle: At my wedding I had to come in through a side door and into a sort of general circular space—oh, you know the sort of thing, typical of too many 1970s churches. But we had a glorious wedding Mass celebrated by a priest who was a longstanding family friend, a choir singing Mozart, all my favorite hymns, my brother doing the readings, and all the people we loved best in the world gathered around us. The years between the baptism in the 1950s and the wedding at the start of the 80s are the years on which I want to focus here.
In my childhood, Sunday Mass was a fixture. We didn’t go to a church: We lived in a more distant corner of the parish, and Mass was celebrated in a tea-hut in the local park. My earliest Catholic memories are of walking across that park on cold winter Sunday mornings. We passed the beautiful medieval Anglican church of St. Mary, with its centuries of history. The bells of St. Mary were a part of our lives, pealing out on summer evenings, and we loved them. But, as my mother explained, there’d been a muddle long years before, and it wasn’t a Catholic church any more. A wicked king called Henry VIII had messed things up.
So we walked to Mass, which was important—so important that nothing could ever surpass it until we got to heaven—and because of the muddle of history, it had to be in the tea-hut.
Yes, I knew that the Mass was important. I would have been shocked if we had ever stopped going. I was glad to pray: I knew about Jesus and I always had plenty to say to him. But in those days the Mass was largely silent, and unless you were right in the front pew you could not see very much. I’m afraid that for me the main item of interest was the collection, with people putting money in a bag. Quite often there were two collections; after the second one, it wouldn’t be long before things ended, and we’d go home and have boiled eggs for breakfast because it was Sunday.
I’m explaining this with honesty because it’s silly to pretend to great spiritual experiences which were simply not there, and also because I have to say that much later, when the Mass included hymns and was audible, it made a great difference. As a child, I accepted things just as they were. It did me no harm. I remember devotion among the grown-ups, and my mother evidently deep in prayer after Communion—but I merely note that the liturgical changes happened when I was just at an age to benefit from them.
Happy in Faith
At home, I was taught to say prayers every night, a happy and beautiful end to each day. I was glad to confide any worries and fears to Jesus, and it was good to be able to ask him to bless all the people I loved—I named each one—and to care for children all over the world, and especially anyone who was lonely or unhappy or in prison.
My father was not a Catholic, and I understood about that—it was all part of the muddles created by our country’s history. But I also knew that he and my mother had an absolutely shared set of values, that they prayed together every night, and that God loved us all and wanted us to be happy and good.
And we were happy. It’s not fashionable to say so any more—somehow it’s now usual to suggest that in ordinary suburbia lurked all sorts of horrors, but it wasn’t that way for me. We were a cheerful family who loved each other. Life had a rhythm to it: picnics and trips to the seaside in the summer, wonderful Christmases in winter, cosy teatimes, birthdays with cakes and candles.
God was a real and living Presence, whom I trusted and with whom I sensed a real and direct communication. Going to confession wasn’t traumatic; I was glad to get rid of my sins and understood completely that it wasn’t the priest to whom I was confessing, but Christ, who had died for me and loved me. My First Communion was something for which careful preparation was made. I fully understood that this was to be the start of a new and more glorious relationship with Christ. We sang a hymn: “Welcome, welcome, welcome Jesus—in my heart for ever stay / All my life I will remember / This my first Communion Day.” And I have, indeed, always remembered it.
I went to a convent school. Were the nuns brutal and cruel in the way they taught us? Certainly not. I made friends at school, sang with enthusiasm at morning assembly, and enjoyed most things except lunch—which was not supplied by the nuns but by the local council and was usually horrid. I also loathed arithmetic: It all seemed so pointless, as there were books with all the answers anyway, and people had obviously worked out the sums before, so why was there any need for me to do so? And surely, by the time I was grown-up, there’d be computers, big machines that would calculate everything.
Modern Times, Modern Challenges
And so things went into my teenage years. The late 1960s brought changes in the Church and in society—the messages now were all about pop, pot, and the Pill. At home, my parents still spoke of all the things to which they had always been loyal: an uncomplicated patriotism, an assumed set of social values. Scruffy denim jeans and loud pop music spoke of a different world, and they didn’t care for this much. There were major issues to think through, argue about, talk and read about. I tended to take my parents’ view on many things: I was a keen Girl Guide and received my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and my Queen’s Guide badge. But obviously deep questions needed to be asked and answered. The shelves at home had always been filled with books, and reading was a major part of life: history, biographies of famous men and women, the great classics of English fiction, poetry (I remember weeping over [World War I poets] Wilfrid Owen and Rupert Brooke), and more. I trawled local libraries too—and delved into politics and religion. And I was discovering that British history and Catholic realities clashed at many points: St. Thomas More and his stance became something that carried uncomfortable resonances into modern times, modern challenges.
And there was something more. The Church was alive. In my late teens, and especially in my 20s, I came to grasp the great reality of the teachings of the Church—partly through the FAITH Movement, founded by the late Fr. Edward Holloway. The movement taught a message of the synthesis between faith and science and emphasized the great intellectual heritage of the Catholic faith in all its glory. FAITH held excellent summer conferences: We were encouraged not just to take things for granted—and anyway no one could, in the ferment of the Church of the 1970s. Rather, we were encouraged to listen and ask questions, to seek truth as though it really mattered, to reject clichés. And all this meant extremely lively, even passionate, discussions. Was contraception really wrong? I hadn’t really thought about it before. Suddenly we were discussing demography, population control, coercive policies, world economics—and all this needed thinking through properly. We also talked—a lot—about the way some within the Church were openly abandoning central truths, or were wrecking the liturgy with stupid gimmicks and pointless innovations. I joined various groups that sought to oppose all this: to cherish and pass on the heritage of Latin chant and its place in the music of the Mass and to beg for the teaching of sound doctrine in Catholic schools.
All the while, the TV and radio kept telling us that everything and anything was changing and that there were no absolute moral certainties any more, but this sounded hollow when you really explored it. I became increasingly involved with politics (I served as a local councillor, and later worked at the House of Commons as a researcher) and could see only too clearly that major issues were facing our country and the wider world. What about Eastern Europe where people did not live in freedom? What about the gulag, the prison camps of the Soviet Union? Here at home, what about children suffering through divorce? What about ugliness and the destruction of beautiful places and buildings (many of Britain’s towns and cities were being redeveloped in the 1970s)? What about greed and cruelty? What about war: Had Britain been right to fight the last one? Would there ever be another, and what issues would it be right to fight over? What values should we defend, and why?
On some quite simple and domestic issues, one clearly had to take a stand. I joined the anti-abortion movement—that was a matter of human rights, the need to defend unborn babies. And it was my non-Catholic father who announced, one day at lunch, that he thought we ought to change our newsagent because the present one had started to sell pornography. So we took our weekly order for newspapers to another local shop, with my father explaining his reasons to the manager. We were rather proud of him for doing that.
At this time and through this campaigning, I first came to know people from an Evangelical background and tradition. Most of my parents’ friends—and half of my own relations—were not Catholics; my upbringing had never been in a “Catholic ghetto.” At work as a journalist, I was with colleagues of every religious and political opinion—and all rather vocal. Now, I came to know and respect Evangelicals, one group I had never really met before.
I was impressed by the way they prayed and talked about prayer, but I also realized that they did not understand the way Catholics prayed or the depth of prayer that could take place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I was—and am—unconvinced by the way they seemed to view the Bible as a collection of useful stories with messages for us, rather than as the unrolling of the great drama of our salvation. But above all, I couldn’t really follow their idea that there was one sudden moment in life when you just knew that you were a Christian, when you had a moment of decision and conviction. The Evangelical idea was that it was normal to have a sense of remoteness from God in childhood and then be brought to a conviction about him later on, probably through a spiritual encounter, perhaps at a rally or after hearing a powerful speaker. This in no way chimed with my experience, or that of any of my friends with whom I had discussed spiritual things over the years. On the contrary, a more common experience was a sense of real connection with God in childhood, which had become weaker—although never entirely abandoned—in the teenage years and then gradually reclaimed as knowledge deepened and questions were asked and answered through reading, study, discussion, and prayer.
I came to understand that the Church was more important than I had realized, more central to my life as a Catholic. By the time I married, I had also come to know a number of people who had converted to the Catholic faith and had learned their stories. I had read John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua and Ronald Knox’s autobiography, as well as C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and a number of other spiritual testimonies. Naturally, I also met—and continued to meet—people who had left the Church and who could, with varying degrees of consistency, give reasons for the decision. Even so, most seemed to conclude by suggesting that things were by no means final, that the journey was still in progress and might well end up, as journeys often do, back at home.
This Ageless Certainty
Partly through the witness of Pope John Paul II and the way he taught, I came to understand the role of the papacy and the promises made to Peter. Seeing the events of 1989 and the unravelling of communism—especially as by now I had lived for some years in Berlin, with the reality of the gun-tower and barbed wire of the Berlin wall—was energizing. Then, as the 1990s unfolded and the 21st century opened, there emerged a sense of vigor in the Church that was missing in most of the institutions in an increasingly muddled and dispirited West.
So, as a convinced Catholic, I found I enjoyed debating, arguing, and defending the Catholic Church’s beliefs and teachings. But I also found that this was not always as effective as I wanted it to be. I came gradually to understand—only after many years, and it is an understanding that is deepening as time passes—that actually it is more often by the witness of our lives, and the kindness and decency by which we try to approach people, that we speak most. Scoring points in a debate is fairly easy—sometimes too easy if you meet someone who has not really studied the Bible but quotes it at random, or someone whose life has been rather a mess and is wounded and hurt. But you can think you are winning an argument when, in fact, bystanders will simply see a rude and pushy person who is making accurate but barbed statements.
This, then, is the story of a “born Catholic,” whose childhood was spent in an era of certainties in a Britain which had emerged apparently victorious from a world war and certainly proud of its great heritage and traditions. But a Catholic of that generation was bound to see changes and how the truths of the Church transcend these. And today, no one living in a modern Western nation can feel that as a Catholic he is comfortably going with a cozy flow: You have to make decisions and know the basis on which they are being made.
When Pope Benedict came to Britain in 2010, a magnificent prayer vigil was held in London’s Hyde Park, with some 80,000 people present. None of us will ever forget it—this vast crowd, all kneeling in absolute silence before the Blessed Sacrament. This is the faith that I knew as a child, and in my 20s, and as a young married woman: the unchanging sacramental Presence of Jesus Christ among us. But this faith is also something that I have discussed, read about, been challenged by, argued over, and am still discovering and learning. It’s not a whim, and it’s not a facile slogan. It is a certainty on which others down the centuries have based their lives, and sometimes even surrendered them, rather than deny its truth. No one is really a “born Catholic.” You are baptized into the faith, but you have to claim it as your own and be convinced of it. That is why I am a Catholic today.