In recent days, I have been gratified to receive positive feedback and recollections prompted by the article in the previous issue about my grandfather, Walter Otto.
As mentioned in the article, Walter was raised as an Anglican, and he was received into the Catholic Church after he met and fell in love with his future wife, Gwen. They say converts make the best Catholics and, in his case, this could certainly be said.
People come to faith in all manner of ways and for all sorts of reasons. It is sometimes said that there is no better story for a Catholic audience than a “conversion” story. Or a “reversion” story – involving the “coming home” of those who were raised Catholic, but were never truly evangelised or, for whatever reason, drifted away or left.
During the recent Covid-19 lockdown, a good friend of mine, Victor Grubi, died at Mercy Parklands in Auckland. For such a devout and faithful Catholic, it seemed fitting that he died on Good Friday. However, the restrictions that applied at the time meant there was no requiem Mass that I could attend (one was celebrated by a priest, but that was without a congregation – although it was accessible online). All I could do when we went to alert level 3 a few weeks later was visit Victor’s grave and say a prayer there. (A memorial Mass is scheduled for later this month).
Victor was a great teller of stories – and I remember one he told me about a jeweller in his home town of Hawera. This man, who was Jewish, was baptised as an adult. When asked what had led him to become Catholic, he said that, for many years, when he was working in the basement of his shop before dawn in winter, he would look up through a window and would see the shoes and boots of people walking by every day. This was well before the opening of businesses and schools for the day. For years, he wondered where these people were going. Then, one day, he plucked up the courage to go out onto the street and ask people. They were going to daily Mass, in all weathers, in many different circumstances. This religion must have something going for it, the jeweller thought. That was the start of his journey with the Lord.
Another conversion story was that of my great-grandfather, “William” Bremner, who skipped the New Zealand four to a bowls gold medal at the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney. His wife, Alice, was a very devout Catholic, who received a papal medal for her work with the Society of St Vincent de Paul. William became a Catholic late in life – he died in 1961, before I was born. But it was not his wife’s great piety and goodness that was decisive in his becoming Catholic, although it likely played a part. The decisive factor, so I was told, happened during World War I. William was at Trentham Military Camp, and another man there used to get razzed a lot for kneeling by his bed each night and saying his prayers. But William admired this man’s tenacity and faithfulness. It was a seed sown in William becoming Catholic many years later.
Another such story was related in NZ Catholic last year – how TVNZ’s Tim Wilson came to the Catholic Church. In his case, a decisive factor was the welcome and prayer he experienced at a Catholic church in New York the first time he went there for Mass (as a “lapsed” Presbyterian). He described his experience as not so much a “road to Damascus” moment as an “Emmaus” moment. “You are just walking along and you suddenly realise that Jesus is walking with you,” he said.
Behind “conversion” stories such as these, there is the working of God’s grace. God can use what we might think of as mundane, everyday things we do as Catholics to bring about great things.
But we should not rest on our laurels. We must not hide in our parishes. We must encounter others. As Pope Francis said last year at the International Meeting of Academic Centres and Schools of new evangelisation, “encounters help the faith to grow”.
“Christians need to approach those in need, build bridges, serve those who suffer, care for the poor, anoint with patience those nearby, comfort those who are discouraged and bless those who harm us.
“In this way, we become living signs of the Love we proclaim.”