I write in the full consciousness that each person’s route to reception into the Catholic Church is singular, a pathway he must follow alone, however conscious (and grateful) he may be for the solicitude and friendship of those who lead and guide him.
I was raised in a conventional Protestant household; “went to church” with my parents in a small New England village — a Congregational church, one of whose ministers was Richard Niebuhr (whose piety and earnestness I well remember, and with gratitude). My boarding school obliged us to “attend chapel” daily, the rituals and hymns being more or less standard Episcopalian observances; the music of some of the great old hymns made a far more powerful impression on me than the sermons we heard and “responsive readings” we recited.
In college in the United States, and at the University of Oxford, and in significant ways through my reading of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his early spiritual mentor, Cardinal John Henry Newman, I began to recognize what I might call a spiritual hunger for something which the church of which I remained a nominal member was unable to assuage. I began also, through Newman, but also through much reading (not very purposive or well-organized), to be drawn to the very early Church (Paul in particular), to the Church Fathers, to the sacrifices of its first Christians, and to what I was coming to believe was the Christian communion that had sustained their creeds, their faith, their consciousness of Christ’s glory.
This must be the holy Catholic Church. Its creeds were dogma — immanent, unchanging, beyond cavil — and I embraced them with an overwhelming consciousness that I was called to embrace them. I had to.
My conversion took many years, and I was not received into the Church until 2010, in my 70th year. I had made a long silent retreat through the offices of Opus Dei; the priest who had become my guide and dear friend sat down with me one autumn day in Evanston, Ill., and began responding to a question I had put to him the night before at dinner, a question about some Church issue that seemed contentious at the time. He began to explain … and I remember as though it were an hour ago that I broke in to say to him, “Father, I am already there.” To which he replied, “I know you are. I’ve been praying for you.” I simply knew this was where I had to be.
At my baptism in Washington, after my first confession, Father C. John McCloskey asked me what saint’s name I would like to honor in my own “new” name. I said, easily, “St. Thomas More.” So I was baptized. An hour later, a boy who had served at the Mass asked me to join him — he wanted to show me something on the grounds of the school in whose chapel the Mass had been celebrated. I had never been to the school before. We walked through a small patch of woods near the edge of the school’s property. In front of me was a small bronze statute … of St. Thomas More.
I experience an overwhelming comfort whose substance and elements I am powerless to describe or explain when I attend Mass. I know it is where I should be. Must be. It is my Church, and, perhaps, the long, long journey towards this fulfillment has made my joy in attaining it all the richer.
Retired Gen. Josiah Bunting III is the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Studies Center and also serves collaterally as president of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in New York City. He served his country as an infantry officer in Vietnam and was for eight years superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute.