Page 9, 22nd June 2007

22nd June 2007
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Page 9, 22nd June 2007 — The most joyful day of our lives

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The most joyful day of our lives

In this extract from their joint autobiography, Valerie Riches describes her and husband Denis's journey to full communion with the Church

The road to Damascus has become a symbol for pilgrims in the search for light and truth. However, our route was more like the road to Emmaus, for there were no blinding flashes and, like many others, the journey for me was a long, confused search, groping my way out of all manner of dead ends. Francis Thompson expressed it well in his poem, The Hound of Heaven: Conversion is a very personal experience, sometimes difficult to express in words. In my case there were events spread over many years which, in retrospect, had a significant effect on me, even though at the time they were barely discernible.

Looking back I can now see that the signs and experiences were like pieces of a tapestry, which providentially came together to complete a planned design.

I first became aware of the Catholic Church when. at seven years of age, I was sent to a Catholic convent. The Mother Superior was told that I was not to be indoctrinated, and as far as I can recall, no attempt was made to do so. I remember feeling very sad looking at a statue of the crucified Jesus Christ in the chapel, and being curious about the incense rising during Benediction. I was alarmed one day to learn from one of the pupils that, as I had not been baptised, I would not be admitted to heaven, and rushed home demanding to be baptised forthwith. This was arranged, together with my older brother Geoffrey. aged nine, in the local Anglican church.

I realise now that those few years in the convent had made a deep impression on me. When I went into the chapel and sat at the back observing Mass or• Benediction, I had absorbed a sense of awe and reverence surrounding a profound mystery. There was something serene and intangible.

Twenty years later, during the difficult birth of our first child, I actually prayed from my heart for the first time, asking for deliverance from the pain. Subsequently, I went to see the local vicar for spiritual direction. There was no programme of preparation or instruction and without further ado, I was duly confirmed and became a member of the Church of England. However, it made little impact on me.

Many years later, in the early 1970s, I was invited to speak at a Catholic conference and went to a Mass. What I saw shocked me. What had happened to the Catholic Church of my childhood memories? Worshippers did not kneel to receive Communion, but lined up in a queue as at a supermarket check-out. The language of the Mass was banal. The Liturgy seemed no longer to be centred on Christ, but on the congregation. Had the message of the Church changed? Was Jesus's kingdom now of this world? Could man live by bread alone and store up treasure for this world only? I felt thoroughly let down, and yet the slovenliness of the procedure and the banality of the language could not obliterate the feeling that I was in the presence of something that was not of this world. It was still an experience I had not enjoyed in any other form of worship.

At that time I was already very much involved in the work of Family & Youth Concern, seeking answers to many of the difficult ethical problems of society, and trying to bring up our children decently in London in the swinging 1960s and 70s. During this period I met and talked with Catholics: priests and nuns and dedicated lay people who were in the forefront of the battle for the family and life issues. In one way or another they all, in their individual ways, had a great influence on me.

I read anything which might cast some light on my spiritual confusion. One of the books which particularly impressed me was Jesus by Malcolm Muggeridge. He was working his way through the same dilemmas I thought myself to be in, and he was also well-versed in the social confusion of the times. I read it three times, straight through, and wrote to tell him what it meant to me. There followed a very interesting correspondence. Of the moral decadence of the western world, he said: "The simple fact is that part of decadence is a death-wish. Our society, especially the so-called intelligentsia. is possessed by one. The only antidote is the lifewish Jesus brought into the world. We have to hold on to it in all circumstances."

Later he wrote: "I think the time is getting very near when all middle positions will be untenable, and we shall have to declare where we stand. Then you and I, I'm sure, will find ourselves side by side_ It will be Christ or nothing, no no man's land between truth and meaning. Faith and virtue being reborn and enlightenment is shrinking, and will soon disappear. Just as the Marxist revolutionary, like Lenin, destroys every alternative in terms of power, so Christ destroys every alternative in terms of love."

That was it. How could I argue against that? The conespondence turned out to be prophetic. What finally decided me? Interestingly enough, it was to do with love and human relationships. particularly as high lighted in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Hionanae Vitae.

I remember clearly the day when the news broke that the Pope had, with great courage and prophecy, confirmed the age-old teaching of the Church on artificial birth control.

Furthermore, he had with great compassion encouraged those who found the teaching difficult, not to give up but to persevere. Some Catholics were going about beating their breasts but, even as a member of the Church of England who had practised contraception, I knew instinctively that he was right, not because the Catholic Church said so, but because it was against the Natural Law.

In my work for Family & Youth Concern, the results of the contraceptive mentality were becoming plain for all to see — free contraception for all, irrespective of marital status and regardless of age. increases in abortion, illegitimacy and marriage breakdown. And many Catholics were falling into the same trap.

Denis was the second person on our road to Emmaus, and he was a reluctant and cautious companion. His spiritual background was even more mixed than mine, though he grew up in a Christian environment — his father was a non-practising member of the Church of England, but also a very active Freemason. His mother was a Christian Scientist. As a boy he attended the Christian Science Sunday school, but lost interest during adolescence.

At the time of my confirmation Denis had not even been baptised. When four years later our son was born and was duly baptised, the vicar asked Denis "And what about you?" After thorough instruction he was baptised and confirmed. Our children went to Sunday school and we all went to church on Sundays. The whole family became active members of the church choir and we involved ourselves in church activities; but as the children grew older we gradually drifted away, through lack of spiritual fulfilment.

Meanwhile, during my search. I said to Denis that I would like to approach a priest about becoming a Catholic. He nearly hit the ceiling — his strongest reaction to anything in nearly 30 years of marriage — so deeply Ingrained were his prejudices, which he had imbibed unwittingly from his parents. I tactfully dropped the subject, and didn't raise it again for another six years.

As we worked increasingly together with Family & Youth Concern, he began to meet some of the people active in pro-life and family issues, many of them Catholics. He also met Catholic priests who, he found, were surprisingly normal, and so much more sure of their faith than some of their Anglican colleagues.

We watched the television coverage of Pope John Paul's visit to Ireland in 1979 with interest, and were very impressed by this leader of the Catholic Church. Denis had to visit America in October that year, and when he asked his manager in Washington DC to book a hotel for three days he was told that it would be difficult as the Pope was arriving in Washington that day. This seemed too good a coincidence, so he arranged for us to arrive a day earlier.

On the Sunday morning we strolled down to the Mall to see what was happening and were quickly absorbed by the huge crowds, some of whom had slept out in sleep ing bags in the rain. We stayed on for the Pope's arrival by helicopter and the papal Mass. In his homily he stressed the importance of the family and children, as if he were addressing our work for Family & Youth Concern, and suggested that the best Christmas gift Catholics could give their children was a new baby brother or sister. A grauxdung people befriended us and shared their food and warm clothing with us, and we stayed all day until the Pope had departed. It was an occasion which made a big and lasting impression on us.

In March 1982 1 spoke about family issues at a conference in Dublin. A few days later I received a phone call from someone who had attended the meeting. He felt that my message on the family was so important that it needed to be conveyed to the Vatican, and asked whether I would be prepared to go to Rome and meet the Pope. At first I felt he was pulling my leg, but when I mentioned that we were shortly leaving on holiday and would end up in Italy, he took details of our itinerary.

As we drove to Gatwick in early April to join the educational cruise ship SS Uganda in Venice, we heard on the radio that the Falklands had been invaded. A week later, when we sailed from Alexandria, we were informed that the ship had been requisitioned to become a hospital ship in the Falklands, and that the rest of our cruise was cancelled. We were shipped at full speed to Naples where we were met by Kate Adie and television cameras, to the excitement of the thousand schoolchildren on board. Meanwhile we had received a message by ship's radio that all had been arranged, and we were to phone Mgr John Magee, Secretary to the Pope. He told us to present ourselves the following morning at the Bronze door at 645 am, and that the Holy Father would be celebrating Mass in the newly restored Sistine Chapel for a group of French students.

The Mass was inspiring and, even as non-Catholics, we were greatly moved. After the Mass we were introduced by Mgr Magee to the Holy Father, who said: "You're from England, how kind of you to come!" which left me momentarily lost for words, for the first time in my life. When I told him about our work for the family in Britain, he responded warmly: "The family is my mission."

We particularly remember his great warmth, his penetrating eyes, and that for some minutes we had his absolute attention. It was quite the most uplifting and moving experience of our lives, and left us determined to do more to defend and up hold the needs of the family in our troubled world.

Meanwhile, I had decided that I needed to seek spiritual guidance from a Catholic priest. This time Denis reacted more calmly, and said he would come along. But he confesses that he was more concerned to keep tabs on what I was getting up to, as he saw it as possibly being divisive and a threat to our marriage.

We asked our friend Kenneth Kavanagh if he could recommend a good Catholic priest, and were put in touch with Dom Edmund Jones, a Benedictine monk. He had been parish priest at Cockfosters, north London, for 29 years and had recently established a monastery at Turvey Abbey, near Bedford, where he was joined by the Benedictine Sisters from Cockfosters. He asked us to tell him about ourselves. At the end he asked, quite simply, "So what's the problem?" and agreed to start us on a course of instruction. which proved to be an enriching journey for us both. Dom Edmund had become a Catholic while preparing for ordination to the Anglican ministry, and understood all Deals 's reservations and anticipated most of his questions.

After six months we felt ready and convinced, and asked Dom Edmund how soon our reception could take place. Having heard talk of Catholic priests pressurising possible converts, we were surprised when he questioned us about wanting to rush things. In fact, we had to convince him that we really were ready. On our last evening of instruction we had a celebration glass of Olivetan Benedictine liqueur, and thanked Dom Edmund for all he'd done to help us find our way to Rome. He replied: "You needn't think I had anything to do with your becoming Catholics, or you for that matter it was the work of the Holy Spirit."

We are sometimes asked why we took the decision to become Catholics. Much as we loved our fellow Christians in our pro-family work, we longed for a closer sacramental union with Christ than we had found on our spiritual journey so far. Membership of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, places us in a personal relationship with Christ, whom we encounter in every aspect of our lives: in the Eucharist, in the Sacraments of Reconciliation, of Marriage; in the Scriptures and in all the things we do on a daily basis. We consider, with St Benedict, "not what is best for yourself but for your brother". Wherever we have found ourselves in the most remote parts of the world, we have discovered that this same Church awaits us, offering universal love and care.

On the morning of All Saints Day 1982, as we were about to set off for Turvey Abbey, the postman delivered a letter. It said "This note comes from a complete stranger, and does not merit a reply... I have heard that you are to be received into the Church today. Please be assured of my prayers of thanksgiving, which will join with yours... I'm so very, very glad; and happy for you — John Edwanis,SJ" Fr Edwards has since become a pillar of spiritual strength to us and a very dear friend. We were received in the tiny chapel at Turvey Abbey, with two monks and 12 Sisters in their white Benedictine habits, our son Jeremy, son-in-law Gavin and other members of our family and friends. It was the most joyful day of our lives.

The correspondence with Malcolm Muggeridge six years earlier turned out to be prophetic. Three weeks later, Malcolm and his wife Kitty were also received into the Church.

Built on Love: An Autobiography for Two by Valerie and Denis Riches, is published by Family Publications (Tel 0845 0500 879, e-mail: [email protected]), priced £12.95

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