From Roving Reporter to Roman Seminarian
English journalist and convert Tom Hiney explores an even deeper mystery than what the subject of his biography, iconic detective novelist Ramond Chandler, could concoct.
“I am about to start what will be my third of four years at the Beda, a late-vocation seminary in Rome.” Tom Hiney was speaking to the Register Sept. 8 from his English home in Devon, just before returning to his studies in Italy.
“The first year was still in lockdown, and there were no tourists coming [to Rome], even from other parts of Italy,” Hiney said. “At times, it felt like I had the whole city to myself, wandering alone around basilicas with apostolic relics and the Blessed Sacrament. I was already in love with Catholicism, but that was my honeymoon.”
Less than two years earlier, Hiney had converted to the Catholic faith from Anglicanism.
“I was in the military as an Anglican chaplain and being well-paid,” he explained, “and with the prospect of a good pension if I stayed, and it took a lot of courage to hand in my notice in order to become a seminarian again.”
But resign he did, and thereafter he was received into the Church in an empty Portsmouth Cathedral, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning.
“I found myself locked down with my mother for months in the middle of Devon,” he recalled. “I had waited years to receive the sacraments as a Catholic, only to find Mass and confession had suddenly become illegal for the first time since the Vikings! It was bizarre, but while others were in turmoil, I was peaceful with my decision and channeled what nerves I did have into finishing a book I had been trying to finish for 20 years: The Song of Ascents was very much a lockdown baby.”
Just published by Ignatius Press, The Song of Ascents is a book that is hard to categorize. It tells stories of a medieval king awaiting a Viking invasion, a Jesuit evangelist at the court of Akbar, a West African prince in 1890s Indiana, and a composer in communist-led Poland, as well as a lost explorer, a disobedient general and an aging war hero (the author’s own father) — seemingly, all these characters spurred Hiney from atheism — or what he describes as “always at the agnostic end of the atheist spectrum, atheist only in that I didn’t think much about these things at all” — to Anglicanism and finally to Catholicism.
“These stories are about people turning to God in horrible moments, with faltering human hearts like mine, and finding him to be faithful,” he explained.
Hiney put the first intimations of his move into the Church in perspective.
“Having come back to faith in South Africa,” he replied, “where I lived for nine years, it was initially the beautiful gospel singing down there that I found hard to ignore. I also met some very genuine African Christians, almost of all of whom either attended or ran small Pentecostal or evangelical churches in the townships. Their grace, wisdom and good humor really convinced me that what they were preaching and singing about might be true. Once I started reading Christian books from this perspective, I found many of the Catholic books I came across to have a wonderful depth to them. They weren’t always the easiest books to read, but they stayed with me and made me more patient.”
After living and working as a freelance journalist in South Africa, Hiney returned to England. There, he began attending more traditional Anglican services that made him realize “how powerful the words of the Eucharist were, and that led me to reading about the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence.”
Then, at Anglican seminary, he started “to think deeply about Church unity,” citing this as “the thing that led me to ask to be received into the Catholic Church.” He was ordained an Anglican minister in 2011 and went on the serve in the British army for five years as a chaplain, before being received into the Catholic Church in 2020.
When asked if entering a Catholic seminary was a shock for an Anglican clergyman, he responded: “I was a Protestant minister for almost nine years and grew up the son of an Army chaplain. So I have known church leadership in that way.”
“Being at the front of church has never seemed a quantum leap for me, and I have felt the same on becoming Catholic,” he added. “Catholic priesthood is obviously a unique responsibility, but, with God’s help, I look forward to it.”
In the summer of 2023, he hopes to be ordained to the priesthood.
Today, however, at 52 years old, Hiney continues as a student at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome. About to recommence his studies in October, he looks forward to returning to seminary life, albeit with a humorous double evaluation.
“Eventually the tourists returned, but [Rome] is still great,” he said. “Being on a corridor with nine grumpy old men can be less delightful, but we have fun, too, and it’s a great joy for me to be reading the Church Fathers and magisterial documents. What treasures! … I’m very glad that I kept my resolve to make this leap of faith.”
Before entering Christian ministry, Hiney worked as a journalist, with articles appearing regularly in such publications as The Sunday Times, The Observer and The Spectator. His 1998 book on the creator of hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler: A Biography, went on to become a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.” His next work, On the Missionary Trail: The Classic Georgian Adventure of Two Englishmen, Sent on a Journey Around the World, 1821-29 was published in 2000 and subsequently serialized on BBC Radio 4.
From Raymond Chandler to a Roman seminary is quite a transition.
“I was a journalist and was invited to write a book proposal in my mid-20s,” explained Hiney. “I chose Raymond Chandler because I loved Chandler’s style, his way with words and his ability to see through the surface of situations to what was really going on. I loved the way he matched this perceptiveness with a refusal to give up completely on hope, or on love. He was extremely cynical about a lot of things, but open to goodness, though he struggled to find it. I like him still, and he taught me in many ways how to write; how, in his words, to look to enthral rather than impress my readers.”
Chandler was a great advocate of keeping readers on their toes. When asked if he thinks the Holy Spirit uses the same modus operandi, Hiney replied, “I’ve stopped trying to guess exactly what’s on the next page. To be honest, I have come to love not knowing what is about to happen. I was the child of a nomadic military family and have moved a lot since (I’ve had perhaps 50 addresses), so adapting to new circumstances is not a new experience. … An increasingly religious view of life has brought me to trust change more and to trust that there is a coherence and benevolence that are playing even when I cannot see it. I trust the Author of Life and am happy to say that in a pub as well as in a church. I thank God for those things which do not change and try to meet the rest with something of his integrity.”
So, is it, now, as in a Philip Marlowe story, “Mystery solved”?
“No,” Hiney responded, “a mystery, rather, loved and embraced for many years — and loved all the deeper as a Catholic.”