by Norman Tucker
In good Pope Pius' golden days, When Rome could do no wrong, sir, A zealous Convert I became Determined to belong, sir.
I HAD never been inside an R.C. church. But I knew where the local one was, in our small town beyond the London suburbs. It was that plain little red-brick 1930's style building behind the General Post Office a short distance, but a long cry, from the massive 14th century Anglican edifice looming impressively over the market square (I had never been in there either).
As an amber light was glowing above a wooden door which was closed, it was obvious that I would find the priest there. I knocked on the door, then opened it and stepped resolutely inside. Well! It was just about the smallest office I'd ever seen ... more like a broom cupboard really, and terribly badly lit. Glancing down, I realised that I was standing on the feet of a small, red-faced, redhaired priest. He was seated on a chair, looking up at me with his mouth open and a large black book on his lap. I think we were both equally baffled by each other at that point.
I apologised and shuffled off his feet into a corner of the cupboard, enquiring politely if he was the priest. A silly question, no doubt, as the man was wearing a dog collar. He turned a shade deeper red, I thought, and closed the big black book with a muffled bang, sighing slightly. 'Yes, my child, I am', he said, in a rich and pleasant brogue, 'and will you kindly step in next door, not in here'. I nodded and backed out of his ridiculous little office with great relief. His calling me 'child' was certainly strange, but no doubt due to my being short in stature; also my voice is rather high-pitched in moments of stress, and the lighting, as I said, was very poor.
Ignoring the whispering crowd of Bateman cartoon characters who had now gathered around the priest's cubby-hole to watch my exit, I stepped with dignity, and caution, through the second door. To my amazement, it was no bigger inside this room than in the other one, and completely without furniture not even a chair. Just a short kneeler, and above it a wooden cross and a square metal mesh let into one wall, 1 was examining this aperture, and waiting for the priest to join me in this very peculiar interview room. when I was startled by the sound of his voice in my right ear. He had obviously remained in his cupboard next door, and intended to talk to me only through the wall. But it was his words which at last gave me a clue to this mysterious procedure.
He said very gently and pleasantly, -Well, my child, how long is it?" My mind boggled quietly for a few seconds. I thought: 'How long is what?' ... a piece of string?... the cross on the ? ... the inside of the church... Then, in a flash, I understood. Memories of magazine articles about the Spanish Inquisition leaped to my aid: secret societies, hoods with slits for the eyes, and vital passwords. Of course! Catholics came here to talk to the priest secretly, whispering through the grille, and first they had to give the right answer to his question. I was thrilled by my discovery, and it was certainly going to be fun being a catholic. I had always enjoyed codes and passwords in the Wolf Cubs as a boy. But I decided it was only fair to reveal my true position at once.
Look', I said, 'I am nor a child I'm nearly thirty. And I'm not a Catholic either, so I don't know the right answer, I've just come here to ask you for information about the Catholic Faith'.
A considerable silence followed. When the priest spoke again, it was in a curiously different tone of voice; formal, brisk and businesslike. Most politely he suggested that we both stepped out into the aisle. We did so, and the priest pulled out a tiny diary from the pocket of his long black tunic, carefully writing down my name and address with an equally tiny pencil. He promised to visit me for a chat 'within the next week or so'. obviously trying to remain nonchalant as though potential converts came forward quite regularly on Saturday afternoons. But I sensed real excitement under his official pose, and I had no doubt that the machinery of mighty Rome would very quickly whirr into action. An intelligent, virile and ambitious young man like me could only be an asset to the Church, I considered.
My first instruction was a general conversational skirmish between myself and the very amiableParish Priest. An hour later. I rose to leave. I was all the heavier by a quart of pale ale, an R.C. Enquiry Centre booklet, a novel entitled 'Orthodoxy' by someone called Chesterton, and a great thick. 'Catholic Question and Answer Book' with authoritative statements about everything from Astrology to Zionism. It seemed a lot to get through in a week. But at least I could look up some really tricky questions for the following Monday evening. And as we moved towards the door of his sitting room, I was able to respond in a small way to Father's considerable courtesy. 'Please don't trouble your wile this time'. I insisted, 'I can let myself out'.
A quick flip through the Enquiry booklet when I got home showed that it started with The Existence of God which I had always believed in, however vaguely and ended with Novenas, Scapulars, Indulgences, Holy Water and other fascinating secret Catholic practices. My Sales Manager at work had once illicitly shown me his Freemason's Handbook, but it had nothing on this! And the chunky Q. & A. Book was even more intriguing. Its 600 odd pages were by a forthright American priest who loved showing with impressive charts and graphs how Catholics outnumbered all other Christian bodies put together. It had marvellous crescendo headings like 'The Biggest Church ... The UNIVERSAL Church ... THE ONLY TRUE CHURCH!' 1 absorbed information from it like a dry sponge suddenly dropped in the ocean.
Sherbert and Holy Water
Meanwhile my Catholic girl friend put right some of my earlier misconceptions. She explained about Latin in the Mass, about rosary beads and the fact that priests have housekeepers only. She added that she didn't know much about Theology herself, but her brother in Ireland was very well informed, and he was a good server too. This puzzled me somewhat. I mean, I serve pretty well myself, but why bring tennis into it'? At my next instruction session I soon returned to the attack with another tricky question. I said that most Catholics I had met were either Irish. Italian or Polish in ancestry, and the Popes apparently were nearly always Italian. But I was English, and the Catholic Church looked rather foreign to me. The PP blandly replied that he quite understood this. being half English himself. His own father was a convert and had told him how as a boy he and his pals used to put sherbert in the Holy Water outside the local Catholic church, It used to fizz beautifully. But one Saturday they were caught at it by some Catholic boys who had just had Confirmation and were so full of the Holy Ghost that they knocked the living daylights out of them.
The weekly instructions continued in this pleasant way for several months, and I steadily read my way through the massive Catholic Question & Answer Book, the Enquiry Centre Booklet and dozens of sixpenny C.T.S. pamphlets, I found the simple, basic Christian beliefs quite easy to accept, but would have liked to delve deeper into their riches.
There was no time for such luxuries, however, because of all the other information a convert needed to master. By now I realised that the Catholic Church was also The Greatest Club in the World; one could hardly become a Member without knowing the rules and getting acquainted with Club officials, atmosphere, furniture and traditions ... almost 2,000 years of them. So I busied myself with learning to recognise Deacons, Priests, Canons, Monsignori, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals and Apostolic Delegates; to talk intelligently about Papal Encyclicals, Pastoral Letters, Infallibility, Bulls and Interdicts. Plenary Indulgences, Exorcism and Excommunication; to marvel at the wordy wonders of Catholic Social Teaching.
Meanwhile that tall, aristocratic white-robed figure in
Rome held his incessant audiences, with apt advice ready for Catholic miners, midwives or mariners from every land, I eagerly studied his translated speeches in the Catholic newspapers. These papers were invaluable mirrors of The Club's teeming life, with news of important events like nuns' Silver Jubilees, Bishops' Engagements, School Building Funds, Changes in Fasting Regulations and Luxury Pilgrimages to Fatima (with own Spiritual 'Director); from their pages I learned much about Marian Devotions, Lay Retreats, Night Vigils, Novenas, Apostolic Benedictions, Papal Awards, Annulments, Third
Orders, Mixed Marriages, and The Holy Shroud of Turin.
The Church (i.e. the Bishops, Priests and Religious) was obviously working like fury for the salvation of the Ordinary Catholic Layman sometimes referred to as The Simple Faith ful. I soon began to look more closely at The Simple Faithful whenever I met him, or her. To a complete outsider these Catholic men and women must have seemed very ordinary. quite undistinguished people. But knowing something of the astounding, infallible truths they possessed, I realised that only deep humility made them hide so well the fires of saintly Christian zeal that burned in them. Some were so amazingly humble that they wouldn't even enter the Chruch during Mass, but stood in the porch or on the steps, arriving late and departing early, so as not to he noticed. Naturally, during the first year after my reception intothe Church, and after my marriage. the Lay Apostolate or Catholic Action of my wife and myself consisted chiefly in the setting up of a home and the starting of a family.
Meanwhile, week by week. I learned more about the Faith. M) earlier ignorance of Catholic practices was now a cause of reminiscent laughter whenever the Parish Priest visited us, or when I dropped in for a chat at the Presbytery, and the 'converts' cupboard' was re-opened. Over a glass or three of its contents. Father and I would discuss the latest liturgical trends, such as the daring new Dialogue Mass in Latin (vernacularists were still a small, fanatical fringe group unmentionable in decent Catholic company).
In fact, it slowly dawned upon me that R.C. Converts like Bankrupts inevitably develop a
special relationship with their Receivers. After all, a Convert is a rare bird who contributes a distinctive feather to the cap or biretta of a Parish Priest, and m) P.P. once remarked that if he bagged six in a year he would probably be made a Monsignor. And after months of private talks, ding-dong arguments, much bottled ale and a General Confession, a certain intimacy must result. So it was that Father told me my first Catholic 'in-jokes' about misunderstandings in the confessional, people caught enjoying steaks on Fridays, or the improbable conversations of priests, parsons and rabbis.
Drinking club for Catholics
It was now 1959, and I was already a Catholic of three years' standing (or kneeling'?). 1 felt that my apprenticeship in the Faith was now over: I knew how to behave at High, Low, Requiem and Nuptial Masses; when to sit. genuflect, cross myself or take Holy Water; how to find the Proper and Preface of the day in a complex, two colour, bi-lingual missal, and how to sponsor candidates for First Communion or Confirmation. I'd actually met the Bishop and kissed his ring.
I'd also fathered two bonny Catholic babies as a personal contribution to the Conversion of England.
Yet somehow I was far froth satisfied. With my eager Convert's head full of Catholic Apologetics, Simple Theology, Stories of the Saints, and the combined writings of R. A. Knox, C. C. Martindale, Chesterton, Belloc and Arnold Lunn, 1 still thirsted for wider experience and a more dynamic apostolate, So I formed the bright idea of starting my own Catholic Society. This was to be a Guild of Catholic Gentlemen (title to be fixed later) which would meet one evening a month at a Public House in Beaconsfield where G. K. Chesterton once used to argue mightily with Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and possibly H. G. Wells. I felt sure that hundreds of staunch Catholic men would love to gather there for good talk and pints of cheering ale in the true Chesterbelloc manner, so I posted up hasty notices at parishes all over West London. South Bucks and Middlesex, announcing the inaugural evening. The day arrived, and of course, I went to the hallowed bar early, and ordered a dozen pints or so in advance, to be ready for the rush. Unfortunately nobody else turned up, and the barman wouldn't take the beer back, so 1 consoled myself with five or six pints, then a little light-headedly, caught a Green Line Coach home.
Well, that was my last flash of Convert individualism. Soon afterwards I simply became what was called 'a good Catholic' one of the ordinary faithful troops who never miss Mass on Sundays, always support their pastors (within sensible limits) and stay too humble to volunteer for special duties. It was a comfortable life. and Mass was an ideal time for private prayer in those peaceful days. I'd mastered all the 'furniture of the Faith' and I felt at home at last .,.
Then along came Pope John XXIII and opened a few windows at the Vatican. Soon he called a Council. The 'furniture' began to change visibly; Latin went; altars were turned round: prayers were cut; rules were altered; 'heretics' became 'Separated Brethren': laymen were promoted and some Saints demoted; keen 'progressives' tried to update the
Church by 500 years in a month, while dogged 'conservatives' dragged the baby from the hathwater and clung to the hands of the clock. It was all a bit upsetting for a chap who'd just spent six years learning the old ways and even worse, no doubt, for those who'd put in forty or fifty. But the pendulum had to swing; new shoots had to flourish and dead wood be trimmed, to keep alive the Tree that grew from a mustard seed two thousand years ago. Perhaps, when the dust settles a little before long, we shall all whether 'convert' or 'Cradle' Catholics see Christ a bit more clearly in his Church, and some of us may begin to undergo our real conversion at last.