After some years of hedonistic living, a young Sam Fancourt reached a turning point in his life and started searching for answers – and this included attending services at churches.
But when he was in his twenties, some two and a half decades ago, what he experienced at Catholic Masses and at Protestant services in Auckland was a real contrast.
Fr Fancourt, now a priest of Opus Dei, told a Theology on Tap gathering at The Apothecary Licensed Eatery in Howick on June 6 that no one used to speak to him or even say hello after the Masses.
But at the Protestant services, “people would be climbing over the seats to say hello”.
“[At] the Catholic Church, I could see all the theological truth, but where is the Church? The Protestant church was where I could see a lot of very genuine, very vibrant people.”
But he was eventually baptised as a Catholic, even if this meant giving up a relationship with a Protestant girlfriend.
“I learned a lot from the Protestants, although I obviously became a Catholic,” he said. At Protestant services, he became used to giving his testimony.
At his Howick talk, he put this skill to use, and spoke about his years of “total unabridged hedonism”. These were years of “carnage and mayhem on a professional scale”, during which he neglected his studies and flunked out of university, partied hard, drank a lot, and did his share of “weed”.
The young Sam had come from a completely non-religious background.
But a young Catholic man was a close friend, and this friend was very well formed in the faith. The young Sam had vigorous debates with this friend over religious truth.
“I had sub-zero interest in religion,” Fr Fancourt said.
“In fact, I would spend my time arguing with [my friend] about all sorts of philosophical and theological things. . . ..”
And there was the Protestant young woman who first invited him to pray.
He recalled thinking at the time, “of course not, why would I? The actual, realistic possibility that God could exist was so utterly remote from my mind, that it was a stupidity at that time”.
But a series of small touches of grace led Sam to ask questions, to reflect and to take an interest in matters of faith and religion. “The whole thing stopped being some intellectual concept, some topic discussed by philosophers, and became an existential thing,” he said.
After dabbling with Eastern mysticism, he was introduced to the rosary. He wanted to find out what the mysteries were about – so he read the New Testament in one sitting, and started reading a lot about God.
He found that he needed to be satisfied intellectually and spiritually.
“Faith for me can never be something that is not rational,” he said. “The whole thing about looking for God . . . is about truth, full stop.”
But at the same time, the divine realm can’t be truly and deeply understood and experienced at all without prayer.
“It is not just an intellectual contemplation,” Fr Fancourt said. “You need prayer, but you also need to study – you need to know.”
His conversion was not a Damascus Road experience. Rather, over some time he reflected that he had spent a lot of time talking to God.
“I came to the realisation that I spent my whole day alongside God, and I couldn’t deny that he was there,” he said.
He came to see years later that faith is a gift. And he realised that it had been given to him.
He was drawn more and more to the Catholic Mass, and less and less to Protestant services.
Another significant factor for him was the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. That became “the trump card, that is the truth. [It was] an insatiable attraction”.
“As a convert, when you go from nothing to everything, you understand with a lot greater ease, how much everything is. If that is the truth, I have to go to Mass every day,” he said.
Experiencing liturgies over an Easter Triduum was to prove decisive, and he would go on to be baptised in the Catholic Church.
Fielding questions from the 60 or so young people at the Theology on Tap event, Fr Fancourt was asked about speaking to friends about faith.
Fr Fancourt said that this as a delicate matter. As a Catholic, “you want to convert the entire world, but you don’t want to instrumentalise your relationships. You genuinely want what is good for another person, but you don’t want to turn your relationship with the person into a tool . . . in the hope of converting them. Faith flows naturally in conversations between friends, such that, if it never comes up, it wouldn’t be true friendship”.
He recommended genuine friendship, being there for the other, “and God will take care of the rest”.
The organisers of the Theology on Tap event are from St Mark’s Catholic Mission Parish in Pakuranga, and they were very pleased with how it went.
“Theology on Tap (ToT) surpassed my expectations when we initially planned it in the beginning of the year,” said Donamae Dela Cruz.
“We were estimating 15-20 young adults coming, but that tripled with the aid of our parish priests supporting the event, and also the other young adults community within the diocese,” she said.
“ToT is an event unlike the normal gatherings, as it’s on a weeknight, that gives a good break between our busy work lives. It provides a space for young adults to catch up, build relationships, and learn more about our faith in a relaxed environment.”
Another of the organisers, Alice Sung, was pleased that the event proved to be so popular.
“I think a combo of being the first ToT, and the topic was a good one too that drew the crowd,” she said.
The setting, a “casual restaurant environment”, meant that “those on various faith journeys can come together in a friendly environment to meet new people with a theology-related topic”.
The organisers are planning another ToT event in September, and they hope that it will take place several times a year.