Patrick Foort, a former Anglican clergyman, in an address delivered to the Annual General Meeting of the Converts' Aid Society recently, tells of his experience of conversion to Catholicism.
WITHOUT the Converts' Aid Society we would never have established a bridgehead in our new life. For instance, to vacate our 12 room rectory we had to find somewhere to put a lot of very large furniture, at least until we knew our future. Pd just got a job at St Edmund's, Ware, and it was suggested that they might have some room. I remember well the Bursar, Hal King, spending a morning helping me to dispose of great mahogany wardrobes and chests of drawers in garages and storerooms, but at the time my emotion was one of relief at a problem solved.
Last year Hal died, and his Requiem was concelebrated by three bishops and 41 priests for one of the best-loved laymen in the diocese. That man had rolled up his sleeves to help an unknown convert. I know what Jacob meant when he said "Truly God was in this place and I knew it not".
Another person to whom I have never been sufficiently grateful was Philip Sony, head of Wel[bury Park Prep School, now alas no more. He lent us a three-room lodge cottage on his estate; but all I could think of at the time was that the thatched roof leaked, so that my wife and I had to sleep with a basin on the bed between us; and that did not make for marital togetherness, can tell you.
Which brings me to my second point. We convert clergy have often been congratulated on the courage with which we made our step of faith. But in many cases it was nothing compared with the courage of our wives. My own had a diploma in agriculture and had done her war work in the Women's Land Army. She could talk to the farmers and smallholders of our country parish in their own language, and was much respected.
She gave all that up out of loyalty to our marriage, and not at first out of any real conviction. Now, happily, we have found a faith we can both fully share; but without her devotion the whole family could have fallen apart. A good Catholic marriage has to be formed. So has a Catholic character, though in my case "hammered out" might be truer. Which brings me to my third piece of unfinished business.
Friends used to say, about my conversion, "It's like coming home, isn't it?" Well it was if I had lived in a smithy.
When I went to St Edmund's, Ware, there were 16 on the staff of whom 12 were priests. These men were awesome, their names read like a roll of honour of Westminster archdiocese: Fr Britt-Compton, Fr Kelly, Fr Miles, Fr Bourne, Fr Winstone, the Garvey brothers, and Fr Higgins.
They made me realise that there was absolutely no comparison between their fellowship and anything I had known before. They were like the anvil of God, on which I had to be forged, but without the unfailing support of the CAS and the St Cuthbert Mayne Society I would never have survived. The power was there to take me out of myself and centre me on Christ, but it took time. So to my next look back.
Four hundred years of Protestantism, and in my case Northern Irish Protestantism, are not wiped out overnight just because one has made one's submission. So I want to acknowledge humbly to the friends who must have been driven to despair at times, the amount of grace I must have kept out by sheer residual obstinacy. For this I do have a little warrant, in the experience of no less a person than St Paul.
Do you remember his great defence of his record in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. "Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they of the seed of Abraham? So am 1". Not, you note, "So was I".
What would you make of it if I rang out, "Are they Anglicans? So am 1. Are they of the seed of Ian Paisley? So am I". God bless everyone who was so patient, but we do need healing, don't we? So to my last piece of unfinished business.
When the Bishop of St Albans began to see what was in my thoughts, he called me to his house one day and took me for a fatherly walk round the lake
below the Cathedral. He was convinced I had "Roman Fever", and found a psychiatrist for me to go and see. He wanted, he said, to give me a chance to get myself sorted out.
It was a kind gesture, but the psychiatrist, helpful though she was, never once brought Christ directly into our conversation. I remember at the time thinking that it would be very strange if I took my car to a garage with a broken half-shaft and they said, "Get it right first, and we'll look after it".
For me, since I became a Catholic, there has always been a source of healing within the simple practice of the faith, through our Lord's presence at Mass.
Let me sum up so far with a story. When the time came for our children's Confirmation, we wanted if possible to avoid the questions that would arise in their minds if conditional baptism were insisted on. So I prepared an account of what I had myself done, and submitted it to Cardinal Godfrey through my p.p., Fr O'Brien, a retired Senior Chaplain.
I well remember a damp, foggy November evening, when I knocked on the presbytery door. It opened a crack, and a very military voice said, "Oh, it's you. Go away, I'm busy".
But 1 had a good case. I stood my ground, and after a moment the voice said, "Oh well, I suppose you'd better come in". Two and a half hours and several double whiskeys later I came out with my business done after one of the richest evenings of reminiscences I have ever known. For me that was the beginning of my weaning as a Catholic. It is inconceivable that it could happen in an Anglican vicarage. There is all the difference not only in degree but in kind.
Now I want to tell you about the Parish of Hatfield Hyde, where I was asked to go as curate in 1955. The C of E were concerned about pastoral care for the new town of Welwyn Garden City, and had provided two additional churches, so that there was one high, one middle and one low. Mine was the low church.
There was Holy Communion at 8, Matins at 11, and Evensong at 6.30. Matins was an Establishment affair, with a parade service at least once a month Scouts, Guides, Sea Cadets or ATC, and two great festivals, Remembrance Sunday and the Feast of St Artichoke.
But it was the evening service that counted. You had to be there before 6 to be sure of a seat. So much so, that the diocese built an extension, but that was after my time. There was not a Catholic Church nearer than the other side of the railway, a good two miles away.
Last year, I was invited back to preach at the centenary celebrations of the old church. I was honoured but said I would have to be dressed like this, and would not be able to make my communion. This was understood. So on the Saturday evening my wife and 1 went to Mass in the Church of Our Lady Queen of Apostles, large, and quite new since our time.
What is more there was a school and a parish centre that the Anglicans had to use for their centenary social as their own was inadequate. There was a creditable congregation. On the Sunday we both went to Parish Communion at our old church of St Mary Magdalene. The first surprise was that this is now the only Anglican church remaining in the parish, although the population is now over 26,000.
The second was the Matins as a public service had completely disappeared, and that Evensong was now said for about half a dozen people in a side chapel.
Most surprising of all in a way, was the set of Stations round the wall of the extension, most beautifully done and in stark contrast to the memorials to the important Gurney family in the old part of the church.
Parish Communion followed the Mass almost word for word. All that had happened since we left just over 25 years ago. There is now no doubt whatever that the real spiritual centre of that side of the Garden City is the Catholic Church, with its Mass congregation many times larger and its huge contribution to the life of the community.