Coming Home to the Church: The Stories of 10 Theologians

BOOK PICK: ‘By Strange Ways’ offers tales of Catholic converts.

‘By Strange Ways’
‘By Strange Ways’ (photo: Ignatius Press)

BY STRANGE WAYS

THEOLOGIANS AND THEIR PATHS TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH 

By Jonathan Fuqua and Daniel Strudwick, eds.

Ignatius Press, 2022

262 pages, $19.95 (note online discount)

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531


Naysayers may claim the Church is in decline. Encroaching secularization, the hemorrhage of the young, falling attendance, and the failure to recover from the somewhat self-imposed COVID lockdown all suggest an institution on the ropes. Some even speak of “managing the decline.”

Adapting Mark Twain, news of the Church’s demise is premature.

One cannot ignore the factors just enumerated. But one should also not ignore the converts the Church continues to attract. Nor is the Church’s “success” measured in numbers. It’s measured one soul at a time.

This book contains the stories of 10 recent converts, Scott Hahn probably being the most generally well-known. They are unusual, in that not only did they become Catholics, but they also became Catholic theologians. They came from a variety of backgrounds, from low (evangelical) to high (Anglican) Protestantism as well as Judaism. Some were rather observant in their previous practice; others, not so much. 

One started his way to the Church through art history. Another found his way to Byzantine chant and liturgy through crowd-surfing. Some came from mixed religious families, where the only binding tenet seemed to be “ABC” (Anything but Catholic). That same prejudice remained for others an obstacle of the heart, even after their heads were telling them to swim the Tiber.

What’s interesting is the number who spoke of their “conversion” not as abandoning something but as bringing something to fulfillment. Several stories recount how the Church was not so much a renunciation of the most key elements of their previous confessions but rather their maturation and completion. 

Because they’re theologians, some of the stories may not be understood by the general reader. Joshua Lim’s musings about how he found inadequate the Calvinist Reformed tradition’s inability to refute the challenge of Immanuel Kant without winding up in Gotthold Lessing’s “ugly ditch” is a case in point.

Most of the accounts do not detail such theological struggles, but they do treat each of these person’s quests for the truth. 

Barney Aspray sums it up: 

“If I had to put my reason for becoming Catholic in one sentence, then I would say it was because I felt the need for a standard outside of myself by which to discern truth from falsehood.” 

But, as Pope Benedict XVI stressed, we are converted to a Person, not a proposition. 

Paige Davidson Hochschild was seized by that truth (albeit then making a syllogism of it) during Eucharistic adoration, which crystallized her decision to become Catholic: “[I]f this is Jesus, wholly present in the Eucharist, then … the Church simply has to be what she says she is, [therefore, whatever I do] could only be done with integrity within the Church” (emphasis hers).

That said, the truth that brings one within the Church is no sectarian, tribal shibboleth that is best kept for the Church and by the world locked within ecclesiastical doors. 

Petroc Willey’s essay most moved this reviewer because he shows that truth must be taken to the world and shouted out from the mountaintops (at least from those in his beloved England). He insists that any true encounter with beauty and the world must make one surrender his subjective desire to define meaning, the universe and the mystery of human life in favor of calling “one to attend to the wonder of being.” 

And, pursued to its end, it brings one to “the ultimately Real [that] is the ultimate Being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons, seeking and finding and drawing us, the One who establishes us in truth.”

It was that Truth, those Persons, that brought these 10 to the Church — and continues to bring others. 

This week, the Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a devout Jewish convert and a cradle-Catholic theologian. It’s a great week to read this book.

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