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I Was Converted by Mozart

This is how I came to embrace the Catholic Church — or more accurately, how she embraced me. It took years for the several strands in my life to come together that prompted me to convert. In retrospect, scores of events and ideas moved me. In attempting to extract some of the most significant I will try to avoid, in the words of a book reviewer who is himself a devout Catholic, the “bumptious triumphalism” that many converts use to describe their experiences. 

Almost every Sunday of my life I have gone to church. Some of my first memories are of the Chapel of Cornelius the Centurion on Governor’s Island, the Coast Guard base where my family lived. We moved to Virginia when I was five, and I grew up attending a Lutheran church a few miles from our home.

My mother interspersed religious stories with secular stories when she read to my brother and me. We loved C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, though I didn’t like the end of the last book, The Last Battle, where it got a little too “religious.” We also read from an illustrated children’s Bible. I loved the Old Testament, with men fighting and temples burning and seas parting at the stroke of a staff, but the New Testament was mostly talk and comparatively uninteresting. 

Although my father was raised Mormon, he had not practiced that faith since before I was born. He directed our church’s choir but stayed seated when it came time for communion. He never talked about religion, and during our family prayer time he remained silent. I remember wanting him to pray. I even asked him to, but he refused. 

Lutheran church services go strictly by the book, and as an acolyte I knew that we were performing a ritual, not showing off. No one ever thought to paraphrase the words of the prayers or to insert a heartfelt message into the liturgy, and we always knelt at the altar rail to receive communion. Like most children, I thought church was deadly boring, but I did not attribute that to the unchanging nature of the liturgy. As I have come to realize, a fixed set of rituals that change little from week to week accomplishes one important thing: It lessens the focus on the humans, along with the attendant pressure to “perform” for the congregation. 

A few new members of the church were former Catholics, though none of them had converted to Lutheranism as much as turned their backs on Catholicism. They wanted to be divorced and remarried; or else their spouse was Lutheran, and they left their faith for the sake of family unity. Others joined our church because it was close to their houses.

There was an unspoken stigma attached to anyone who got too excited about God. Several members were very knowledgeable about Lutheranism, but none of them had the sort of apostolic zeal that turns whole nations to Christ. As our pastor’s daughter said, “We believe what Catholics do, we’re just not as loud about it.” Of course, that’s not true — there are huge differences between the two churches — but it epitomizes the problem in mainline Protestantism. While tact ought to be exercised when spreading the gospel, shouldn’t Christians make sure everyone knows that Christ is the Messiah?

Not that I wanted to preach the gospel. I wanted to play baseball and video games. My report cards usually had a note from the teacher that began, “Eric has a lot of potential, but….” I was always finding activities that had nothing to do with schoolwork. If I had been born ten years later I might have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. My father diagnosed my behavior as rank laziness, and he was right. With parents of different faiths, a lukewarm church, and a naturally unruly disposition, I was headed towards religious indifference.

During that time my knowledge of Catholicism was murky. What I learned in Sunday school made me think Lutherans were fortunate to not be forced to worship statues and to read the Bible without a priest looking over our shoulders. The Pope couldn’t tell us what to do. In history classes I always hated when we got to the Counter-Reformation. The good guys had almost won, but then the nasty Council of Trent put a stop to the expansion of Protestantism. 

In high school, my chosen path of adolescent rebellion was to smoke cigars, listen to classical music, grow my hair to my shoulders, and immerse myself in conservative politics. Conservatism was the quickest way to annoy my liberal teachers, and at first it was only incidental that I thought it was true. 

(It would be useful to pause here, because unless I say differently, you may think I identify conservative thought with the Christian religion and vice versa. There are other legitimate political viewpoints for the serious Christian; some of the modern Catholics I most admire — Dorothy Day and G.K. Chesterton among them — were political liberals. Jesus instructed his followers to feed the poor, for example, but did not specify whether that should be done through private charities or government action or a combination of the two. The answer surely must depend on the time and place his command is followed.) 

My brushes with Catholicism were infrequent, but my brushes with Catholics were constant. For whatever reason, most of my friends were papists, though I was big enough to overlook that shortcoming. Occasionally I accompanied them to Mass at the local Catholic parish. The music was middlebrow schmaltz, a distinct contrast to the stately Lutheran hymns I had grown up with. Once a member of the Catholic “folk group” played a banjo solo during the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer. The piano player who assumed musical duties at some of the other Masses played while singing into a microphone suspended near his mouth. It was so much like a lounge act I half-expected to see a tip jar on the piano. 

This parish was famous for the time the pastor drove a Volkswagen Beetle down the center aisle of the nave to demonstrate a point. It also gained local notoriety for almost losing its tax-exempt status in its eagerness to support Communist insurgencies in Central America. The priest allowed political donations to be solicited in front of the church, and several disgruntled parishioners tattled to the Internal Revenue Service. Needless to say, this parish kept me away from the Catholic Church for a long time. 

But I saw glimpses of deeper, more enduring aspects of Catholicism. I observed in many of my friends’ families a closeness and vitality that I could not help but attribute to their faith. In my perusal of secular periodicals, I read parts of papal encyclicals, and, though I did not grasp their full meaning, their breadth and solidity impressed me. At bottom, I knew that the Church stood for certain things and did not back down, no matter how much the world raged against it. That left a powerful impression on a young man struggling toward adulthood.

Once I entered college my contact with formal religion was limited to Sunday services at a Presbyterian church that I attended with my girlfriend, Paige. Although I was deeply in love with her (on our second date, I had informed her that we would one day be married), I worshiped out of obligation and would have probably have fallen away from active churchgoing altogether. She was much more committed to God than I was, and I usually became agitated or distant when she brought up matters of faith. Though we did agree that we ought to belong to the same denomination when we got married, we assumed we would be Protestant. 

When people ask me about my conversion today, I often tell them I was converted by Mozart. That is an exaggeration, but not far from the truth. It was through music and art that I encountered a positive, inspiring vision of Catholicism. To be young is to be a sensualist, and it was through my ears and eyes that I first became attracted to the faith. 

When I was seventeen, my parents ordered a compact disc of Gregorian chant from a music club. As a choir director, my father was always looking for new material, but I don’t think he could have possibly considered this for the choir. Perhaps they received the recording by accident and kept it. Whatever the reason, I listened to it often, intrigued by the otherworldly stillness it brought to my soul. My reservations about the Catholic Church softened as I listened to it. No institution that nurtured such beauty could be all bad. 

That insight deepened as my musical tastes expanded. As I have mentioned, part of my program of adolescent rebellion was an enthusiasm for classical music, which is impossible to appreciate without encountering religious works. A disproportionate number of compositions I liked were from Catholic composers. When I was selected for a madrigal singing group in my senior year of high school, our repertoire included choral staples like Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Lacrimosa. Until I encountered these works I had little appreciation for the majesty of God. Mozart may not have been the most exemplary Catholic, but that didn’t bother me much. He said that when he composed he found nothing more inspirational than the words, “Lamb of God, who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” Such sinners who seek forgiveness will never hear a unkind word from me — indeed, I marvel at their humility. 

But it was a relatively unknown Renaissance-era composer who provided me with the most dramatic fusion of fidelity and musical strength. Until recently, scholars thought that Thomas Tallis, an Englishman who lived from 1505 to 1585, served the monarchy while remaining indifferent to the religious controversies swirling around him. He conducted the choir of the Chapel Royal, the summit of all choral positions in sixteenth-century England, and wrote music for various feasts and events. In contrast to his dutiful appearance, he stayed Catholic even under the persecution of Queen Elizabeth at a time when going to Mass incurred a substantial fine and being a priest meant a summary trip to the executioner. 

I was introduced to Tallis on a visit to my friend Steve’s dormitory at another university. “Listen to this CD I just bought,” he said. Steve was majoring in music education, and he always played his latest acquisitions for me. From the opening notes, I thought I was hearing a modern choral piece, but Steve told me it was four centuries old. I became transfixed by the consummate beauty of the work, called Spem in Alium, as well as by its intricate complexity. It is a forty-part motet, and although its text is only thirty-one words long, it lasts nine minutes. It pulsates with the hidden pain of a man who remained steadfast while he watched his faith being destroyed in his country. I cannot do justice to his work on the printed page, but I will reproduce the words of Spem in Alium here: 

Spem in alium nunquam habui 
Praeter in te, Deus Israel, 
qui irasceris et propitius eris, 
et omnia peccata hominum 
in tribulatione dimittis. 
Domine Deus, 
creator coeli et terrae, 
respice humilitatem nostram. 

I have never founded my hope 
on any other than thee, O God of Israel, 
who shalt be angry, and yet be gracious, 
and who absolvest all the sins of mankind 
in tribulation. 
Lord God, 
creator of heaven and earth, 
be mindful of our lowliness. 

The visual arts also drew me to Catholicism. I took an art history class my freshman year of college, mainly because it was one of the only open courses when I registered. I discovered that I loved looking at art and decided to minor in art history. It is impossible to survey the history of art without running into the fact that a huge number of great works were created ostensibly for the glory of God. The vast majority of those works, whether they were paintings or cathedrals, were created by Catholics. 

Before that, I had observed the differences between the Protestant and Catholic treatments of the visual arts firsthand, in the continent where they existed long before their arrival in the New World. Four of my schoolmates and I traveled to Europe in the summer between high school and college, and, of the many memories I have of that trip, two are relevant to the narrative. The first was a late Gothic church in Salzburg whose interior was gleaming white. We had toured enough churches for me to notice what was missing: statues in the niches, relief carvings on the altar, religious scenes over the apse, Stations of the Cross, and all the rest. A tour book noted that the church had gone Protestant early in the Reformation, and the parishioners had razed everything that smacked of “popery” and whitewashed the priceless oil paintings on the walls. 

By contrast, when I entered St. Peter’s Basilica, my Protestant sensibilities were shocked by what I regarded as the gaudy ornamentation and the distastefully expensive decorations. (I have returned there since my conversion, and it all looks perfectly appropriate now. In fact, compared to many aristocratic palaces, it is positively austere.) My friends and I split up to explore the massive building, and I walked to the right, intending to wander my way to the main altar. Though the crowds were thick that Sunday, they thinned out for a moment at one of the side chapels, and I looked over to see if there was anything interesting in it. 

I found myself facing Michaelangelo’s Pietà, a statue I had seen before in my parents’ slides from when we lived in Europe when I was very young. In reproductions I admired the skill of the Florentine sculptor, but I was unprepared for the full impact of beholding it in person. Mary’s sorrow holding her dead son is poignant yet bereft of despair, and her countenance is suffused with divine radiance as she contemplates the innocent victim. The bustling sounds behind me melted into oblivion as I sank to my knees. Tears streamed down my face as I studied the sculpted flesh of Christ, and I marveled at the dexterity and depth of soul necessary to produce such a wonder. Finally, I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and stuffed a wad of Italian bank notes in a donation box as an insufficient gesture of gratitude. 

It was these two chains of events — my intellectual crisis and my growing aesthetic appreciation of Christian art — that forced me to consider the claims of Jesus Christ for the first time. I had attended church all those years but I had never asked the kind of basic questions I should have: Who is God? What does he want from me? Does believing in Jesus matter? 

I began reading apologetical works, especially those of C. S. Lewis. I saw that the case for Christianity does not rest so much on one irrefutable line of reasoning but on a thousand probabilities that add up to one great certainty. One the most compelling arguments I encountered goes like this:

Jesus Christ said he was God. His statement must be either true or false. If it is false, either Jesus deliberately deceived his followers — in which case he was a liar — or he unknowingly deceived his followers, in which case he was a lunatic. But knowing what we do about human nature, Jesus acted like neither a lunatic nor a liar. His words and deeds showed no sign of dementia; it is even less likely that he was a liar, because his “lies” got him nothing except a slow, bloody death. The remaining possibility — that he claimed to be God because He really was God — fits the facts most closely. 

After devouring as many books as I could on Christianity, I suddenly understood. The feeling overtook me as I walked to my car one day. A moment before, it all looked so confusing, but then all at once it permeated my mind. I wanted to place God first in my life, not pay lip service to him. 

This first conversion of the heart uprooted me from Lutheranism because it was not through Lutheran sources that I came to understand. I wondered, why hadn’t anyone in my church told me about this before? (In retrospect, this wasn’t exactly fair. If someone had told me, I would not have listened.) 

I started attending meetings of Evangelical groups on campus, especially Campus Crusade for Christ. At this point, an observer might have safely bet on me becoming an Evangelical. My problems with authority, my political conservatism, and the fact that I grew up Protestant all militated for that outcome. The Evangelicals I knew were genuinely committed to the Lord and maintained an admirably close-knit, accessible community. It was largely through their influence, along with Paige’s example, that I became a serious Christian. 

However, questions remained. I believed that the Bible foretold Christ’s arrival in the New Testament; I believed Jesus was fully God and fully man, and was crucified for the forgiveness of our sins, then rose again to show he had conquered death. I believed that the apostles spread the Word just as it says in the book of Acts. What happened next is a matter of some dispute in Christianity, and it was the historical agnosticism among Evangelicals that I found most troubling. I was getting my degree in history, and my inclination to ask, “What about the next two thousand years?” was becoming overwhelming. 

As near as I could tell, the only game in town until the Reformation was Catholicism. I began to read general histories of Christianity. During spring break, when I was confined to bed because of minor surgery on my foot, I began to read through several issues of a magazine that a friend had given me. The magazine was This Rock. At first, I just liked the novelty of reading something from the “opposite” point of view, and my combative nature admired the strong and fair-minded material. Unfortunately, I began to find it enticing. I could see where one teaching rested on another teaching, and the doctrines interlocked in such a way that everything fit together. 

I also discovered that most of the things I knew about the Catholic Church were wrong. Whereas I thought the pope was supposed to be right about everything, it turned out that the idea of infallibility is much more limited. Further, the Church did not try to crush learning, as I had been led to believe, but has promoted it in universities, which the Church herself invented. Bibles were printed on Catholic printing presses decades before Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. 

I found Catholic theology richer than any other, mainly because of its openness to Greek philosophy, which it uses as a tool for evaluating reality. Moreover, it does not regard the Bible as a self-interpreting book. Protestants believe that each individual can discern God’s will simply by reading the Bible without any external authority. But to Catholics, theology consists of applying reason to Scripture and Tradition, subject to correction from the Church.

The results are plain to see. Jesus prayed for Christian unity in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, but the individualistic approach to Christianity has been a font of confusion. There are thousands of independent Protestant entities, some of them as small as one church.

The historical case for Catholicism was to me an even stronger point in its favor. Ignatius of Antioch was the first man to use the phrase “Catholic Church,” only seven decades after the Resurrection. The term saw wide use after that, and the writers appeared to know precisely what they were referring to: not a vague, amorphous, invisible group of believers, but a visible community led by bishops who taught in the name of Christ and the apostles. 

My haphazard Protestant education had taught me that things like prayers for the dead, veneration of saints, and forgiveness of sins by the mediation of a priest were later “additions” tacked on to pure Christianity by the Catholic Church. The writings of the earliest Christians soundly contradicted this. The teachings were not as developed as they are today, nor did the hierarchical government of the Church remain in the same precise form from the beginning until the present day. But one would expect to see a difference between a beleaguered, persecuted group of outlaws and a worldwide body of one billion spread across six continents. 

Surveying the Church’s two-thousand-year record, I noticed another strange fact. No matter where it was, even under friendly governments and during peaceful times, she never quite managed to become respectable. Whenever a society thought it had domesticated the gospel, there arose a Francis of Assisi to shake the complacency of those who would relax and enjoy their comforts rather than serve others. The contemporary example of Pope John Paul II was foremost in my mind. How tempting it must be to show up in a foreign country, soak in the adulation of the masses, say a few innocuous platitudes, and fly off in a cloud of ersatz goodwill. Here was a man whose love for humanity was so great that he challenged whole nations to strive for a more perfect order and risk opprobrium for doing so. The sight of a leader who neither pandered to our worst impulses nor consulted opinion polls to mold his message was deeply impressive to me. 

Was the pope the head of the one, true Church of Christ? After all, there are a lot of churches out there. How can anyone say that a particular church is the right one? And doesn’t that mean the other Christians are wrong? The answer, say Catholics, is that most of what the other churches teach is true but incomplete. What is missing is a coherent explanation of how divine Providence works in the world. God took on human flesh to be a living sacrifice for us, and to teach us by word and example. He underwent not only the physical pain of death by torture, but also the spiritual pain of bearing the punishment for every sin that ever was and ever will be committed. Was it really so implausible, I reasoned, that the Lord would fashion an instrument to preserve the memory of Jesus’ words and deeds and protect that memory by guaranteeing it would not become corrupted? 

If the Catholic Church was not the true Church, it was a horrible monstrosity, because it presumed to speak with the authority of God but taught erroneously. Would a God of justice permit his name to be misused in this way for fifteen centuries? 

Pondering all of this, I put down what I was reading. “My God,” I thought. “I actually believe this stuff.” 

It appeared that in my heart I had become Catholic. I could not have been more surprised than if I had become a salamander. The truth was that I didn’t want to be Catholic. It would cause major disruptions in my life. In the end, I decided that I had to have the courage of my convictions and follow through on my new beliefs. I know others who experienced profound joy when they reached that point, but for me the joy would be delayed. 

Paige and I had once agreed that we should take a look at Catholicism, as if we were going to look at a car in a showroom. But this change in me came as a complete surprise. She cried the night I told her I was converting to Catholicism. 

“You know we can’t get married now,” she said. I assured her that I knew she would be upset, and that we should continue to see each other. I urged her to consider studying Catholicism and opening herself up to it. 

When I broke the news to my parents, they were stunned. My mother told me she was more shocked by my announcement than by anything she had ever heard. She insisted that I speak with the pastor of our family’s church, which I agreed to do out of respect for her. 

The two meetings I had with the pastor were odd for both of us. He studied at Catholic University for his master’s degree in medieval studies and knew more about Catholicism than I did. We talked elliptically about faith and belief and how Christians are supposed to grow intellectually. At last he came to the point: Why was I doing this? My mother thought it was for political reasons, but didn’t I know that Catholicism does not endorse political ideologies, and that I could be a Lutheran conservative without contradiction? 

Yes, I said, but my reasons are not political. I have come to believe that the pope is the vicar of Christ, that good works are essential for salvation, and that we should ask Mary and the saints to pray for us. 

“You certainly picked the big ones,” he replied. 

During the following months I exerted no pressure on Paige to look at the Catholic faith and went out of my way to avoid anything that resembled coercion. I talked with her when she wanted to know more about the Church, but I left the subject alone if it didn’t come up. She began attending confirmation class with me, just to see what it was like, and then started going to Mass on Sundays. 

Then the day came when I was over at her apartment and noticed that she had been reading a book on Catholicism. I inquired if it was any good. She nodded weakly. 

“Are you Catholic?” I asked. 

“No, and neither are you,” she shot back. 

“I’m not confirmed, but that doesn’t mean I’m not Catholic.”

“It all makes too much sense,” she exclaimed. 

“Something can’t make too much sense,” I said. “Do you believe it?” 

A pause, then finally: “Yes.” 

Paige and I are now married and expecting a child. My parents have reconciled themselves to our conversion, and they have even attended Christmas and Easter Masses with us for the past couple of years. 

We were confirmed in the Catholic student center of our university at the Easter Vigil Mass in 1994. I expected to be overwhelmed by the experience, impressed by the new responsibility I would now carry as a full-fledged member of the Church. But when the priest dipped his thumb in the sacred oil and marked the sign of the cross on my forehead, I felt I had been let in on a huge cosmic joke. After we returned to our seats, Paige and I could not contain our mirth. 

At the instant I was received into the Catholic faith, I comprehended why artists depict the saints with solemn expressions. Earthly temptations come clothed in seductive guises but prove empty once they are indulged. The things of God are often shabby on the outside, but when they are embraced they prove nourishing and satisfying beyond all expectations. I had discovered the secret smile hidden behind every saint’s face. I thought I had assumed a weighty burden, but instead I found that I had gotten the last laugh.

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