The Passion Made Him Angry ... Then Catholic

Michael Coren is one of Canada's best-known radio and television hosts and columnists.

“Michael Coren Live” airs on Canada's CTS-TV, and Coren has a talk-radio program on Friday evenings. He is the author of 10 books, including biographies of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.

After 10 years outside the Church, Coren announced in a recent Toronto Sun column that he returned this past July. The news came as a shock to his evangelical Christian friends.

Coren spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake recently from Toronto about his reversion to the Church.

Tell me about yourself.

I come from London, England.

I was born in 1959. My dad, who passed away a couple of years ago, was a taxi driver. My mom was a homemaker. I have one sister who is older than me. I was a journalist in Britain. I met my wife while at a conference in 1987 on G.K. Chesterton at the University of Toronto. She was in the audience. She fell for me, and I came to live in Canada when we got married.

What was your religious background?

I grew up in a typical working-class English home. There was no religion in the home, and I had very little religious upbringing. My family was predominantly Jewish. Three of my grandparents were Jewish. My parents’ attitude wasn't one of secular humanism, but that of working people — do your best and try to be nice. They had a suspicion of organized hypocrisy.

I first became Catholic about 20 years ago when I was writing the biography of G.K. Chesterton. It was an intellectual conversion, and it didn't stick. I was given very little support and fell away quite quickly. As a Christian, I found myself a reluctant convert. When I met my wife, we were married in the Catholic Church.

Ten years ago, I had a genuine conversion experience — a Holy Spirit encounter — where I found myself absolutely convinced. I wanted the closest possible connection to Christ, so for 10 years, I worshiped in various Anglican and progressive evangelical churches.

You were originally quite critical of the film The Passion of the Christ. Why was that?

I thought it was a medieval Catholic blood cult. I was really, really against it. Not because it was antiSemitic. It wasn't. When I first saw it, I wondered why it was so historically inaccurate. I wondered why the Jewish leaders were wearing skullcaps, why were the Romans speaking Latin rather than the Greek of the eastern empire. Why were women allowed into the place of punishment, why Jesus was carrying the full cross. My reaction was extraordinarily angry. I think that my reaction was that part of me preventing me from returning to the Church screaming. I was in the death throes.

In reaction to my column on the film, I received thousands of angry e-mails from readers calling me every name in the book. The movie was explicitly Catholic — it's a story of the Mass, the Eucharist and the place of Mary — but the evangelicals were the ones making the most noise.

Had you been considering coming back to the Church prior to seeing the film?

No, prior to the film, I was probably more opposed to it than I had ever been. A couple of months after seeing it, I began to feel that a thread was being pulled.

You wrote recently about your return to the Church. How did that come about?

The months following the film were a very dark time. I came out of it feeling really confused and empty. I felt that I couldn't really satisfy myself in evangelical worship.

My reversion came about for various reasons — the Mass, the Eucharist, the early Church Fathers and the Pope. It was an argument with history that I kept losing. First-century Judaism would have recognized the Roman Catholic Mass and wouldn't have recognized an evangelical service. I viscerally missed Communion. While the appearance of communal sharing among evangelical Anglicans was very moving, I wondered what was really going on. It seemed to have very little meaning. I had a physical longing to be in the Catholic Church. I kept coming back to the idea that I had tried, as an evangelical, to be as close as I could to the very beginning of Christianity. The cleaner and emptier the religious service, the closer I thought I was to that beginning, but eventually I found that the closer I was to the Mass, the closer I was to the early Church.

When I looked at the barriers to Catholicism, they didn't seem very high, so I phoned up a priest and told him I needed to talk to him. I asked my wife, “How would you feel if I came back to the Church?” She was very excited. I spent time asking and answering questions with the priest, and eventually I returned to the sacrament of reconciliation on July 5 and went to Mass after that.

You also wrote about how seeing The Passion of the Christ as a Catholic was different for you. Tell me about that.

When I saw the film again on DVD, it was like seeing it anew. I saw it through very different eyes. I realized that the film's two central points — the centrality of the Eucharist and the presence of Mary— had been my biggest problems with the film. I felt like I had to correct what I had done with my original column on the film.

I understand that you've had some speaking engagements canceled since news of your conversion hit the press?

Yes, after being outed as a Catholic, I received two e-mails from evangelical churches where I was to speak. One of them wrote to ask me to clarify my position with regard to the Catholic Church. I told them, “I'm in it.” Promise Keepers also canceled me. They told me if they had a Catholic on the platform, it could threaten their fund raising.

I was very disappointed. They were telling me that they couldn't have me on the platform because I worship Jesus Christ in the Roman Catholic Church. They were all canceling me for who I am, not for what I was going to say. The talks had been prepared months before, and none of them were denominational. One was on being a Christian in the workplace.

Thankfully, the very day that Promise Keepers canceled me, a Catholic home-school group in Alberta invited me to come speak, and the Ontario Real Estate Association also invited me to speak, so I feel very taken care of. This is nothing compared to the people in the world who are dying for their faith.

Do you have any plans?

I'll continue to do what I do. Being Catholic has been wonderful. My wife and I went up to the Jesuit North American martyrs shrine together, and we are going on a retreat at a monastery. Just going to Mass together as a family has been remarkable. We're extraordinarily lucky to have the Oratorian community close by.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.