Conversion: What’s the Key?

Father C. John McCloskey, one of the most successful ‘fishers of men,’ explains his secret.

A new member of the Church shows her emotions as she and five others baptized and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI carry the offertory gifts during the Easter Vigil Mass the Pope celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica in 2010.
A new member of the Church shows her emotions as she and five others baptized and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI carry the offertory gifts during the Easter Vigil Mass the Pope celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica in 2010. (photo: 2010 CNS photo/ Paul Haring)

During the Easter vigil Mass, in so many parishes, a moving moment comes when the faithful welcome new believers: catechumens (those who receive baptism, Communion and confirmation) and candidates (already baptized) who have typically completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, tens of thousands of converts across the country joined the Church as full disciples of Christ this year.

In England and Wales, at Easter, some 900 members of the Church of England were received into the Catholic Church, including 61 former Church of England priests. They joined a new Catholic entity, called the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, created by Pope Benedict XVI so that former Anglicans in England and Wales can maintain aspects of their tradition.

The Anglican ordinariate is led by Father Keith Newton, a former Anglican bishop who converted to Catholicism and was ordained a Catholic priest earlier this year.

But what are the ingredients for a successful conversion?

Many Catholics — despite seeing the abundant gifts offered by adult converts — are comfortable letting overburdened priests, RCIA staff and the Holy Spirit serve as frontline “fishers of men.”

Father C. John McCloskey, a priest of the personal prelature of Opus Dei for the past 30 years, is considered one of the Church’s most accomplished “fishers of men.” He has guided dozens of people into full communion with the Catholic Church, including high-profile figures such as federal Judge Robert Bork, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Gen. Josiah Bunting III, economist Larry Kudlow, former abortionist Bernard Nathanson and columnist Robert Novak.

“People are looking for the truth and the happiness that the truth can give,” observed Father McCloskey. “These people, although successful — many, very successful — still found emptiness in their lives. The answer is a man named Jesus Christ.”

“I just happen to have been the right man at the right time to help guide them,” said the priest.

In his book Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius, 2007), Father McCloskey calls on us all to evangelize with zeal and respect for others. He reminds us that Vatican II assigns the laity two tasks: “seeking holiness and extending the Kingdom of God on earth through family life, friendship, work, study — in a word, through apostolate.”

Although he says he is “just an instrument and God uses me,” such a productive instrument must have some rules of thumb for evangelizing. He does.

Five Steps

Describing the heart of conversion as a one-on-one relationship, a gift of self by the evangelizer, Father McCloskey says the best approach is a direct one: 1) Ask a friend or family member if he or she has ever considered joining the Catholic Church; 2) Be prepared to answer questions about the faith (which will probably require some study of your own), but be confident that you almost certainly know more than your non-Catholic friend; 3) Engage friends by suggesting good Catholic books and readings (a “Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan” is appended to his book), while sharing the beauty of the liturgy; 4) Know that conversion often takes time and is ultimately God’s work, and 5) Follow up.

Whether or not your friend starts down the road to Catholicism and joins the Church, the relationship becomes part of an ongoing spiritual process in which all of us participate as believers, almost like the early Church.   

Father McCloskey practices what he preaches.

For several years, Meghan Cox Gurdon, a Wall Street Journal contributor and unchurched descendant of the Mayflower pilgrims, sensed God at her side, offering “small bits of direction, as though God was saying to me, ‘If you would like to step this way, it would be lovely.’”

Not knowing how to respond to this “unexpected religious experience,” in 1998 Gurdon called a college friend who gave her Father McCloskey’s phone number at Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C., where he was director from 1998 to 2004.

“He responded immediately and invited me to come talk,” Gurdon recalled. 

“Father C. John was the most direct, unapologetic Catholic I had ever met. This was immensely comforting to me. I had visited churches where the priests were sort of lukewarm, but Father C. John speaks with absolute confidence and transparency about the faith. There is something really diamond-sharp about him. And he is unafraid.”

Gurdon was baptized the following Easter, in 1999. Since then, her husband, a British cradle Catholic who had stopped practicing the faith, rejoined too.

Jeffrey Bell, a public-relations guru and former Episcopalian, confirms the effectiveness of Father McCloskey’s approach: “He asks people questions about their religious practices and their feelings, their relationship to religion in the past. People are not used to being asked questions like that, so they answer very honestly. It creates an opening. Father McCloskey taught me the direct approach: Showing interest in someone’s faith history makes it easier to witness what the Church means to me.”

Bell became Catholic in 1978.

Every Opportunity

Convinced that they were ripe for the Catholic Church, Bell advised two friends, economist and radio host Larry Kudlow and journalist Robert Novak, to seek spiritual guidance from Father McCloskey. They both converted.

Father McCloskey advises using every opportunity to evangelize, because you never know what experience or comment may touch another soul.

For Meghan Gurdon’s baptism party, the priest told her to invite everyone she knew: “I had a church full of people. He was evangelizing through me. A woman attended, a deeply religious woman, a Baptist. At the party she said to Father C. John, ‘You know, I’m not Catholic.’ And he said, ‘Not yet!’

“It took over 10 years, but she never forgot what he said. The reverberations of what he does are very wise.”

Gurdon’s Baptist friend is Melissa Overmyer, who calls Father McCloskey’s comment “one of the balls that started rolling” that led her into full communion with the Church.  By the time she sought spiritual direction, Father McCloskey had moved to Chicago, but she found another talented spiritual guide, Legionary Father Michael Sliney, and joined the Catholic Church last year.

As a result, Overmyer, who had taught an interdenominational Bible study group in Washington for over 20 years, has started a new Catholic Bible Study Group, the first in the nation’s capital.

In his book, Father McCloskey observes that people of the Jewish faith can have the most difficulty converting to Christianity because they often lose friends and relatives who don’t understand their decision. But in his experience, if Jews convert, it is usually to the Catholic Church, “the gold standard of the Christian proposition,” in his words.

When Israel Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome during World War II, converted to Catholicism (taking the name Eugenio Zolli to honor Pope Pius XII, whose birth name was Eugenio Pacelli), many of his co-religionists were shocked.

As Zolli wrote in his 1954 memoir Before the Dawn: “The convert feels impelled by an irresistible force to leave a pre-established order and seek his own proper way. It would be easier to continue along the road he was on.”

But as Zolli’s wife, Emma, who converted with him, said about the criticism: “Now that I am baptized, I am unable to hate anyone. I love everyone.” 

Bernard Nathanson

Perhaps Father McCloskey’s most famous convert is Bernard Nathanson, the atheist of Jewish background who oversaw, by his own estimate, 75,000 abortions; created the 1960s’ national pro-abortion strategy (which prominently included denigrating the Catholic Church), and co-founded the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).

Nathanson’s spiritual autobiography, The Hand of God, was published in 1996 by Regnery Publishing — whose owner, Al Regnery, converted to Catholicism under the guidance of Father McCloskey. 

About the priest, Nathanson wrote, “He’d heard I was prowling around the edges of Catholicism. He contacted me, and we began to have weekly talks. He’d come to my house and give me reading materials. He guided me down the path to where I am now.”

Father McCloskey says it took about 12 years before Nathanson was baptized, which is not necessarily a long time: “It takes as long as it takes. It could be months, years or decades. There is never any pressure. It is a work of grace, ultimately.”

And the priest himself is not necessarily the decisive factor.

Geraldine Novak confirms that her husband, Robert Novak, who passed away in 2009, met with Father McCloskey weekly for several years, but it was a chance encounter with a college student that propelled him to seek baptism.

While seated at a dinner at Syracuse University, he asked a student wearing a crucifix if she was Catholic. She answered, “Yes” and asked Novak if he was. When the journalist explained he had been attending Mass and reading Catholic literature for several years but had not converted, the woman replied, “Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever.”

As Geraldine Novak remembers, “After that, he did not rest until he made his conversion.” And she did, too.

“I’m grateful for his conversion and mine,” she continued. “We found a wonderful home in the Catholic Church. There is so much mercy and goodness — it is a great blessing.”

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.