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Why the Famous (and Infamous) Came Home to the Church
American Conversion Tales for Holy Week
By Brian O'Neel
Easter fast approaches, and with it comes a multitude of signs and symbols, all helping to bring home its import.
One of the most poignant of these takes place every year at the Easter vigil Mass, when converts come into the Church. Several thousand Americans are expecting to join this year, 880 in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati alone.
People embrace Catholicism for many reasons, as many as there are people who request reception every year.
Perhaps no single book better illustrates this than John Beaumont’s The Mississippi Flows Into the Tiber, in which he presents a cavalcade of converts in American history. Some are quite literally stars, of the Hollywood variety: Get Smart’s Don Adams, John Wayne (shown, bottom right), Gary Cooper, Faye Dunaway and “Buffalo Bill” Cody, to name just a few.
There are archliberals and archconservatives. There are rich, poor, artists, scientists and engineers, the famous and (today) forgotten.
A few were saints or are on the path to canonization — Dorothy Day (shown, top right), Venerable Cornelia Connelly and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (shown, middle right). Others — e.g., Henry F. Ford II and Ernest Hemingway — left the Church.
And besides cataloguing these great stories, this sweeping work also gives a veritable how-to manual of evangelization and convert-making.
Additionally, it provides a large helping of apologetics.
This title has some of the best apologetics arguments captured in print.
And while most of the conversion stories feature such arguments, there are tales of people walking into old churches and being captivated by their beauty and the peaceful grandeur of Gregorian chant. (Popular Traditionalist blogger Father John “Fr. Z” Zuhlsdorf is in this crowd.)
Conversions exemplify the greatest mercy of all, God’s grace freely given. As convert L. Brent Bozell II said, “… what mercy does is convert, change our hearts, which God never stops trying to do until we are dead.”
For instance, take Republican political operative Lee Atwater. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, a friend asked if he feared dying. Yes, he replied. His friend told him, “There’s only one way you can be sure that when you die you’ll be safe in the next world. You need a Catholic priest to absolve you of your sins.” Thus began his association with the Jesuit Father John Hardon, now a Servant of God, who received him into the Church. Furthermore, the priest set Atwater on a course of apologizing to those he may have harmed in his career. This prompted his famous call to 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
Silent-film star Louise Brooks was down and out, even resorting to occasional prostitution for income, before she came into the Church. For a while, she was a daily Communicant.
Hard-drinking communist and hedonist Dorothy Day had an abortion. But, she later wrote, “I became convinced, little by little, of the necessity for religion and for God in my everyday life.”
Servant of God Ira Dutton, co-worker of Sts. Damian the Leper and Marianne Cope, was a failed businessman and a divorced drunk. On July 4, 1876, he had his own Independence Day, realizing only God’s help could liberate him from his despair. He “sought atonement for his sins [and] determined to spend the rest of his life doing penance for past wrongs.” He and St. Damian are buried alongside one another.
Actress Frances Farmer had an abortion and avoided children because they stoked her feelings of guilt. But a friend had five daughters, “and the affection of one of them caused her to feel that the evil surrounding her was being washed away. She felt God had come into her life, and she ‘would have to find a disciplined avenue of faith and worship.’” Ultimately, that led her to Catholicism.
Mobster Dutch Schultz had become wearisome to his fellow mobsters, so they had him assassinated. As he lay dying, he asked Father Cornelius McInerney for baptism and last rites.
One particularly profound example of mercy is Brother Clayton Fountain, who died in 2004. Labeled “the most dangerous man in the entire U.S. federal prison system,” he murdered four men, one out of prison and three in jail. But he says “God worked to purge me of the inner ‘poisons’ (that is, hatred, rage, bias, bitterness, revenge, vengeance, violence, and so forth).” After his conversion, his prison cell became a monastic cell. He associated with a Cistercian abbey and was studying for the priesthood when he died in prison.
In this Year of Mercy, perhaps one convert’s thought best sums up the role mercy plays not only in the conversion of faith many take, but the daily conversion we all must make as followers of Christ.
It comes from screenwriter Gene Fowler (d. 1960). He wrote, “Why did I become a Catholic? To that question I would ask in return, ‘Where else can an old man go?’ It is a Church that for almost 2,000 years has been a refuge of sinners and for the poor. And I have been both sinful and poor during a life of incautious impulses, careless mischiefs, bad investments in business and in pleasures. And even today I have to make frequent visits to the church when the horned fellow catches me napping. He never sleeps, you know …”
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
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