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May 7, 2008
Column #1,393
Conversion to Catholicism
by Mike McManus

In a recent column I reported that 20 million Americans who grew up Catholic have become Protestant.  However, there is a significant counter-trend of conversion to Catholicism.

Most famously, after Tony Blair stepped down as British Prime Minister, he was "received into full communion with the Catholic Church," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor in London. All Prime Ministers have been Anglicans, Britain's state church. However, Blair attended Mass weekly with his Catholic wife and children.

In 1996, the year before he became Prime Minister, Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Catholic Church in Britain, wrote a letter to Blair asking him to stop taking Communion.  He agreed to do so. In 2007 he underwent a period of "spiritual preparation," meeting regularly with a Catholic priest who is an assistant to the Cardinal.

His conversion was controversial within the Catholic Church that opposed many of his policies as Prime Minister to support stem cell research, legalizing gay civil unions, and he resisted toughening the nation's abortion laws. His conversion was also bitterly attacked by many British: "Hopefully he will now go and live in a Catholic country," said a letter to the London Times.

In the United States, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback converted from the United Methodist Church. He was prepared by Father C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who also led other prominent people to Catholicism, such as abortion Dr. Bernard Nathanson and columnist Robert Novak, published by 125 newspapers.

In his new book, "The Prince of Darkness," Novak writes that he grew up "in a Jewish household that was only nominally observant." After nearly dying of an illness in 1982, a Catholic friend brought him Catholic literature and introduced him to McCloskey. Novak's wife, Geraldine, started attending Mass in 1992 at St. Patrick's, Washington's oldest Catholic Church.

Asked to attend with her, Novak did so and found himself "moved by the ritual." One reason he felt comfortable was the presence of Father Peter Vaghi, who had been an advisor to Sen. Pete Domenici, before his conversion to Catholicism. Novak also had attended a series of breakfasts, lunches and dinners for two decades with Father McCloskey, a "world-class proselytizer," who also helped convert New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman and Wall Street economist Lawrence Kudlow.

"I was a tough nut to crack, but McCloskey never faltered," Novak wrote.  In time he grew to see Geraldine, Fathers Vaghi and McCloskey as "the hand of the Holy Spirit." Still, he hesitated until he spoke at a university. A student asked him if he were Catholic, and he replied, "No," but my wife and I have been going to Mass every Sunday for about four years."

The young woman replied, "Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever." He and Geraldine were baptized shortly afterwards in 1998, witnessed by such Catholic friends as Sen. Pat Moynihan.and Kate O'Beirne.

Three Episcopal Bishops have recently resigned and become Catholics: Daniel Herzog of Albany, John Lipscomb of Sarasota and Jeffrey Steenson of Albuquerque.  Each has concluded that the Catholic Church is the church founded by Jesus Christ who told Peter, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."

Steenson, who is studying to become a Catholic priest, says, "I felt the Episcopal Church had lost something.  They did not think it was possible to find the truth. They have replaced the idea of revelation with human-based authority, rather than discerning what God is saying."

Santa Fe's Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan told him, "Look, you have to lead from conscience."  That is how Steenson "found freedom in my soul to become Catholic."

Most Catholic conversions are not of famous people.  Katherine Spaht, an LSU Professor of Law, an active member of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, says "I was drawn to the crucifix and not the empty cross."

"I loved Lent, which my Presbyterian church does not emphasize. I fast, beginning on Ash Wednesday. I like to remember that even God suffered and died. We cannot get to the joy of Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday.

"I found myself drawn to the awe in worship. The quiet Catholic approach is entirely different from Protestant churches with people chatting and visiting. I love kneeling, which is humbling. I like to be humbled in the presence of our Lord and Savior," Spaht said.

Finally, she liked the fact Communion is the focus of the Catholic Mass, while Presbyterians have it only once a month. "I want it every time. It is holy to me."

The Catholic Church is attracting people for many different reasons.

 
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