Famous Converts

Beyond the Oxford Movement

‘If they (Roman Catholics) want to convert England, let them go barefoot through our industrial cities, let them preach to the people like Francis Xavier, let them allow themselves to be beaten and spat upon, and I will recognise that they can do what we cannot…Let them use the true weapons of the Church, and by using them they will prove that they are “the” Church.’

 –-Reverend John Henry Newman, as an Anglican


ABOVE: The place at Littlemore near Oxford, England where the renowned Anglican theologian John Henry Newman knelt to greet the Passionist Father Dominic Barberi, to ask to be admitted to the Catholic Church.

Ever since doubting Saint Thomas responded to the invitation of Jesus to touch His wounds by saying, ‘Dominus meus et Deus meus’ (‘my Lord and my God’), there have been converts to Catholicism.

People convert towards the divinity and humanity of Jesus, ultimately defined by the Council of Chalcedon, 451.   Deeply associated with the conviction that Jesus is divine is that His intent was not conditioned by history and society. Rather, He founded a Church and entrusted it to Saint Peter. It is of divine origin and as such, infallibility in doctrine inheres in her and no other ecclesiastical groupings.

The supreme climax of the expression of divine intention for the future glory of the Church was the institution of the most Holy Eucharist by Our Lord on Holy Thursday. This was the summit and summation of His life, a prefiguring of the Passion to take place the next day.  Every Catholic Mass is a repetition of this Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary, save that it is unbloody. At every Catholic Mass, Christ is indeed present in substance.  Other ecclesiastical groupings have a form resembling the Eucharist, but none possess His True Presence.

Also associated with the unique nature of Christ is the rational necessity that He should be free from Original Sin and its baleful effects – while yet still human. Every Christian today accepts this seemingly contradictory premise, though Protestants say that it is irrational to believe that Our Lady was conceived immaculately.  That our Lord’s Mother was uniquely privileged in this is also in conformity with reason; as Our Lady was the handmaid of the Lord, so in all these matters reason is the handmaid of Faith, but must never usurp it.

Such are the supernatural realities which have attracted men and women to the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years.

Augustine, proto-convert

The great prototype of modern conversions was that of Saint Augustine (13 November 354 – 28 August 430) who defected from the self-loathing sect of Manichaeism. It is the first narrative which we have in which deep spiritual longing is accompanied by intellectual assent to the Church, laid out in all its majesty and integrity in the Saint’s voluminous works.    

‘Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace…’

Why do people convert? Beyond the intellect, it is their discovery of beauty, truth and love — the almost-inexpressible transcendentals of the Catholic Faith. People convert to a Faith across time and space – as expressed in the words of Saint Vincent of Lerins,

 ‘Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.   That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally.’

Signs of the True Church

Centuries later, in 1591, the Oratorian Father Bozio identified no less than one hundred ‘signs’ of the Church in his work De signis Ecclesiae, which made Her distinct from all other claimants to Christ’s inheritance.  However, by the time of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (21 February 1801 – 11 August 1890), these had been crystallised in debates with non-Catholics into the famous “Four Notes of the Church”:  Unity, Holiness, Catholicity and Apostolicity. (‘ Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam’ from the Nicene Creed.)

So what attracted the saintly Cardinal to the Catholic Church? It was not so much his intellect, although formidable. (He was later to write the highly academic Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.) Newman was not argued into the Church, although many later converts certainly read themselves into the Church before they converted. (For example, Chesterton’s great Catholic book, Orthodoxy was, in fact, written before he converted.)

Rather, we are given to understand that it was personal: ‘Heart speaking to Heart’—‘Cor ad Cor loquitur’ to quote the Cardinal’s motto, itself taken from Saint Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God. ‘Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.’

This echoes moreover Saint Augustine for whom the Cardinal had such a deep devotion, rejecting what he felt to be dry intellectualism of that other great master of Catholic thought, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.

The great barrier for the then-Anglican Newman was that he could not identify the Catholic Church with holiness, one of the four marks of the Church cited above.  He said,

If they want to convert England, let them go barefoot through our industrial cities, let them preach to the people like Francis Xavier, let them allow themselves to be beaten and spat upon, and I will recognise that they can do what we cannot…Let them use the true weapons of the Church, and by using them they will prove that they are “the” Church.

As Providence would have it, Newman was received into the Church by the holy Passionist, Blessed Dominic Barberi.  When he knelt that stormy night at Littlemore and begged to be admitted into the Church, Newman beheld Barberi’s feet. They were barefoot save for open sandals, following a rule based on the Franciscan Rule.    Thus and then could Newman indeed recognise holiness in the Church.

A thread running through the Anglican conversion narratives from Cardinal Newman to the present day — for example, in the recent collection of essays, A Path to Rome, published by Gracewing — is deep scepticism about the apostolic succession inherent in the Church of England.  (Indeed, one could say that the only thing that the bench of Anglican bishops has in common with the Apostles is their ability to run away at crucial times- an ability seen at its height during the Reformation, when one after another caved under the King’s duress.)

Many, too, have been brought to the Faith by the study of history.  For example, few with any intellectual and spiritual honesty can read the History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland  by William Cobbett (he of Rural Rides) and remain indifferent to the claims of the Church. Such was the case with the distinguished historian of the English and Welsh Catholic martyrs, Bede Camm OSB, and more recently the prolific traditional Catholic author, Michael Davies.


Some Catholic converts accept the providence of God docilely, while others have a harder spiritual life. Here is Francis Thompson, the son of a convert:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter. 

 Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.

It is important to note that English converts took in the whole range of opinion within the Catholic Church. On one end of the spectrum we have the forthright Dr William G Ward — the don deprived of a tutorship by the University of Oxford for saying that the only hope for the Church of England lay in submission to the Catholic Church — who stoutly maintained that he would be happy were an infallible pronouncement to arrive from the Pope each day at breakfast.

On the other end, we have the eminent Shakespeare scholar, Richard Simpson, of whom Newman said, ‘he will always be flicking his whip at the Bishops, cutting them in tender places, throwing stones at Sacred Congregations and….discharging pea shooters at Cardinals.’ Another convert, George Tyrell, even got himself excommunicated for his intransigent modernist views.  Finally, we have the seemingly eternally undecided such as the Reverend Sibthorpe, an Anglican precursor of Cardinal Newman who converted, then returned to the Anglican ministry for almost two decades, then re-converted but was never really happy, finally dying with the Book of Common Prayer in his lap.

Time will always find out motives; Anglicans in recent times who converted simply because they did not like the idea of women in any walk of life or profession soon found that Rome is not so safe a harbour. But the Gates of Hell never prevail against the Church. Any new Crosses which must be born will be lightened by the realisation that the convert is privileged to be sharing in the suffering of Christ, the King who reigns from the Cross.

The Chesterbelloc

The glory of the converts must surely be Chesterton and Belloc, so close that their atheistic arch-rival and close personal friend George Bernard Shaw nicknamed them the ‘Chesterbelloc.’  Far from being morbid in belief and practice, they enjoyed the Faith that God had led them to. 

Belloc was so unashamed to be Catholic that, he stated in one of his speeches, Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being your representative.’

Oh, that more Catholics today would assert their Faith in such terms! Belloc won, but his five years in Parliament left him disillusioned, thinking that the Opposition and the Government were virtually indistinguishable. He would surely have recognised the even greater decadence of modern politics.

What he had not thought possible on earth

One can only end with the last words of Cardinal Newman to the Church of England, his sermon called ‘The Parting of Friends.’ For in those days before religion became a personal lifestyle choice, converting to Catholicism meant  for intellectuals, to be cast outside the mainstream of academic life,* and for others more generally to sacrifice personal and social bonds. 

And, O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.

And, finally, there is what Newman describes in his novel of conversion, Loss and Gain:

“He was still kneeling in the church… before the Tabernacle, in the possession of a deep peace and serenity of mind, which he had not thought possible on earth. It was more like the stillness which almost sensibly affects the ears when a bell that has long been tolling stops, or when a vessel, after much tossing at sea, finds itself in harbour. It was such as to throw him back in memory on his earliest years, as if he were really beginning life again. But there was more than the happiness of childhood in his heart; he seemed to feel a rock under his feet; it was the soliditas Cathedræ Petri. He went on kneeling, as if he were already in heaven, with the throne of God before him, and angels around…”

*The University of Oxford had its first post-Reformation Catholic fellow, Francis “Sligger” Urquart only in 1896.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christopher Gillibrand studied Chemistry at the University of Oxford. He is the director of Revive E-Publishing and lives in Wales.

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