G.K. Chesterton Became Catholic 100 Years Ago, Drawn in by Jerusalem and Our Lady
But why did the writer’s conversion take so long?
On July 30, 1922, at the Railway Hotel, in Beaconsfield, England, G.K. Chesterton became a Catholic. In the absence of a local Catholic church, the Railway Hotel’s Irish landlady had allowed the ballroom to be converted into a makeshift chapel. It was there, beneath a corrugated-iron roof and surrounded by bare wooden walls, the 48-year-old writer entered into full communion with the Church.
What were the reasons for Chesterton taking this step?
And, given his thought and writings on Christianity for many years, why had it taken him so long?
“Conversion is finally an act of the will, not simply of the mind,” said Karl Schmude, president of the Australian Chesterton Society, “and Chesterton’s becoming Catholic was delayed for personal, not doctrinal, reasons.” Chesterton’s reluctance to convert, Schmude told the Register, was essentially on account of the writer’s wife, Frances. Although Chesterton had been baptized in the Church of England, his religious upbringing was largely Unitarian. The orthodox Christian beliefs he came to hold later had developed under the influence of Frances, who was a High Anglican. And, in 1922, she was still an Anglican, not yet ready to make the same spiritual journey as her husband. That would change: In 1926, she followed him into the Catholic Church.
While Frances’ then reluctance about Rome may explain her husband’s delay, it tells us nothing of his motivation for eventually taking that step. Chesterton’s eventual conversion to Catholicism, Schmude sensed, was the endpoint of a journey that began with the intellectual position set out in Orthodoxy (1908) and which would pave the way for the writer’s deepening acceptance of supernatural belief. Schmude perceives this gradual growth of understanding in Chesterton’s life as leading to an attitude of humility and gratitude toward creation. It also led Chesterton to an increasing awareness of the nature of evil that causes the loss of goodness, leading to a need for forgiveness. As Schmude pointed out, when Chesterton, in Autobiography (1936), is asked to explain why he became Catholic, he replies: “To get rid of my sins.”
Schmude said that this sense of sin and resulting sensitivity to evil are key to comprehending the path that led Chesterton to Catholicism in 1922. “[Malcolm] Muggeridge,” observed Schmude, “thought Chesterton was ‘a brooding, anguished, frightened spirit’ and beneath his surface sparkle of wit and optimism there lurked a fear that the world is a depraved and diabolic place. Only God could save it.”
However, Chesterton would often frame his conversion as an intellectual assent to truth. In his 1926 essay “Why I Am a Catholic,” he wrote that “the difficulty of explaining ‘Why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons, all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” But Schmude said that this intellectual assent was not the sole driver for his conversion. In addition, he said, “It was the culmination of a development, grounded in natural insights and experiences, and elevated and fulfilled by the supernatural faith of Catholicism.”
Dale Ahlquist, president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society, agrees, suggesting that there have been few conversions more deliberate than Chesterton's. “Ten years before his conversion,” Ahlquist told the Register, “Chesterton said that if every man lived a thousand years, every man would either end up as a nihilistic atheist or a member of the Catholic creed. At this point, he was already talking to his friend Father John O’Connor about becoming Catholic.”
Interestingly, Ahlquist has two theories as to why it took Chesterton so long to convert. “The first is the same theory everybody else has.” Ahlquist explained: “He was not ready to join the Catholic Church without his wife at his side. He shared everything with Frances, and the two of them truly depended on each other. To not share the most important thing in his life with the most important person in his life did not seem possible. But she simply was not ready.”
The second of Ahlquist’s theories is more startling in its originality. “In his book on conversion, The Catholic Church and Conversion , Chesterton says something that was more than a mere outside observation; [it was] something he had experienced himself. He says that when a man is thinking about becoming Catholic, ‘ordinary anti-Catholic propaganda’ is not an obstacle. That is not what keeps the potential convert out of the Church.” Ahlquist went on to quote Chesterton’s words that the convert is rarely frightened of the Protestant picture of Catholicism but is frightened of the Catholic picture of Catholicism. Alquist said that, for Chesterton, ill-judged words from Catholics did more harm to any potential conversion than any anti-Catholic vitriol from non-Catholics. Reflecting on Chesterton’s words, Ahlquist concludes, rather disconcertingly, that what kept one of the most famous converts of the 20th century out of the Church for years were other Catholics. In light of this experience, Ahlquist reflected, “It was a courageous move indeed when G.K. made the decision to become Catholic.”
Prior to his reception in 1922, there had been evidence of Chesterton wishing to become a Catholic. Toward the end of 1914, the writer had a physical collapse: For the next six months, he slipped in and out of comas as he fought for his life. Chesterton made clear to his friend the Catholic priest Father O’Connor, who was the inspiration for Chesterton’s Father Brown, that, in extremis, he wished to be received into the Catholic Church and anointed.
Furthermore, it seems that, six years after that, in 1920, Chesterton made a promise to Our Lady that he would enter the Catholic Church. This occurred while the writer and his wife were staying in the Italian town of Brindisi en route back to England after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
It was from Brindisi during Holy Week, on March 31, 1920, that Chesterton wrote to his friend Maurice Baring: “There is also something even more important I want very much to discuss with you; because of certain things that have been touched on between us in former times. I will only say here that my train of thought, which really was one of thought and not fugitive emotion, came to an explosion in the Church of the Ecce Homo in Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem’s Ecce Homo Basilica has a unique history. It was constructed in the 19th century upon the archaeological remains of Pilate’s courtyard where the Roman governor’s question to the bound Christ, “What is truth?” was thought to have been posed. The Basilica Ecce Homo — “Behold the man” — was built by Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who had entered the Church after a vision of Our Lady in a Roman church.
“Something happened at the Basilica of Ecce Homo,” said Marco Sermarini, president of the Italian Chesterton Society. Speaking to the Register, Sermarini said he thinks that Holy Land trip clarified things irrevocably for the Englishman. “Frances’ diary records that they went three times to the Basilica of Ecce Homo. The first visit, on March 4, was by Frances alone; then they went together, on March 26, in the morning,” he explained, “and, again, for a blessing the next day in the afternoon. There, they had a long conversation with an English nun. We have no other record of this, but it is certain that Chesterton was particularly touched by this place or, perhaps more correctly, everything became clear there.”
Chesterton’s reference in his letter to Baring to “certain things that have been touched on between us in former times,” must have been, Sermarini maintains, a reference to ongoing discussions they had had about Chesterton converting to Catholicism. Sermarini feels that Baring would have been a suitable interlocutor for such discussions, as he, too, had converted in 1909.
Furthermore, of the 1914 episode when Chesterton was seriously ill, Sermarini said that, when Chesterton had recovered from his illness, “he claimed to have had a ‘mystical ecstasy’ shortly before coming out of his coma in which he was invited by Belloc’s late wife [Elodie] to convert. But once the illness was over, the matter was put ‘in the back of my mind,’ as Chesterton put it — but from there, it continued to work on him.”
Curiously, it was Elodie Belloc, Sermarini said, who had influenced Chesterton’s brother, Cecil, into becoming Catholic in 1912. Cecil’s conversion had not been well-received by the wider Chesterton family, and this may have delayed his brother’s decision to became a Catholic also. In any event, like Schmude and Ahlquist, Sermarini views Frances’ reluctance to countenance heading to Rome as the major stumbling block to her husband’s progress into the Church. “Frances was problematic about the whole thing,” said Sermarini. “Several times in the past she had said that she did not want to convert to Catholicism because she loved the faith — Anglicanism — in which she had grown up.” Sermarini, however, went on to point out, “As Maisie Ward always says: ‘Frances never lifted a finger to prevent Gilbert from joining the Catholic Church.’”
Yet, whatever happened during the Holy Land pilgrimage of 1920, and the subsequent journey back to England, it changed everything. On arrival in Brindisi, Sermarini continues, the Chestertons were unable to find a hotel room, and so retreated to a room in a private house. In the room they were given stood a statue of the Madonna. He feels it was there, “right here in Italy, right in front of this sea of ours, under the eyes of the Virgin Mary,” that the long conversion of G.K. Chesterton ended. “The Virgin Mary always played a great role in Chesterton’s life,” Sermarini concluded.
When, finally, in May 1927, a Catholic church was blessed and opened at Beaconsfield, the Chestertons contributed one notable addition to it, namely, a statue of Our Lady.