If you’re looking for Lenten reading, try this book

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I have recently read one of those rare books, one that I would describe as a spiritual classic. This raises the question, “What is a spiritual classic?” I would respond, a book that deserves reading and rereading, that is full of profound insights – known through prayer and experience rather than simply through observation – and which forces the reader to focus only on the one thing needful, his or her relationship with God alone. It is Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God (Ignatius Press), by Father Donald Haggerty, a priest attached to St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City.

Wanting to provide readers of this blog with some glimpses of the book’s themes (though I certainly would counsel people to buy it for themselves) I asked Fr Haggerty some questions. To begin with, what are the characteristics of a true conversion?

He tells me that “conversions transform our personal relationship with God. Sometimes a true conversion refers to the life-changing discovery of Jesus of Nazareth as the divine Son of God or of Catholicism and its sacramental life, especially the Eucharist, as the true expression of Christian faith.”

Fr Haggerty reminds me that “The expression “converts to the faith” alludes to people like St Edith Stein [Teresa Benedicta of the Cross] or Blessed John Henry Newman who underwent conversions to the faith in this sense. But at other times a true conversion is at work when a Catholic who has abandoned for some time the sacramental life of the Church makes a good confession, sometimes after many years, returns to a state of grace in their soul and now re-commits to the practice of the Faith, beginning with weekly attendance at Sunday Mass.”

He adds, “There is also an important truth of conversion in the notion of a “second conversion” in life, which the book highlights as utterly important for a soul. This is a re-awakening of personal relations with God that takes a person into a much deeper sense of how close our lives can be to God when we dedicate ourselves to serious interior prayer.”

I mention to Fr Haggerty that I have noticed that his chapters all begin with quotations from the saints, evidence of his familiarity with their writings. Which saints would he single out and to whom does he particularly pray? He responds that “A contemporary saint, St Teresa of Kolkata [formerly Calcutta] has had an immense effect on my life. Seeing her in person many times over the course of thirteen years, but even more so, having countless opportunities to share time with her Missionaries of Charity and the poor, both as a volunteer and then as a priest, has shaped my spiritual life. I have imbibed her spirituality and recommend reading her words and reflections to all Catholics.”

Apart from Mother Teresa, Fr Haggerty speaks warmly of “St John of the Cross and his sharply challenging words [which] have been a primary influence on my interior life and spirituality. The other Carmelite saints – St Therese of Lisieux, St Teresa of Avila, St Edith Stein – have been likewise much loved, read and prayed to.” He also refers to Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the French hermit and martyr of North Africa who “is also a best friend of sorts. I pray his great prayer of abandonment more than once on any single day. Then, like so many others, I love St John Paul II, St Padre Pio and also, not typically, St Sharbel, the Lebanese hermit, and Blessed Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit martyr.”

Turning to a particular section of his book, I tell Fr Haggerty that I was especially struck by his description of Our Lady’s likely response to witnessing the behaviour of the Good and the Bad Thief as she stood beneath the Cross, never having read this before. Could he summarise it for our readers?

He reflects, “I believe it is worth asking why two men were crucified on either side of Jesus at Calvary? My own sense is that in God’s plan a terrible wound to Mary takes place at the Crucifixion, even apart from witnessing the horror of her Son’s agony – because of the presence of these men crucified with Our Lord. The so-called “Good Thief” in St Luke’s Gospel rebukes the other criminal hanging on the cross for taunting Jesus and joining in the mockery that surrounded him. We know how the Good Thief turns to Jesus and then receives the promise of paradise.

“But perhaps we never ask what happened to the other man? After Jesus died, the request of the Jews is granted by Pontius Pilate to finish the executions and have the bodies removed from the crosses prior to sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath and the Passover feast. The soldiers approach the two criminals still alive and break their legs, a brutal act that resulted in slow asphyxiation, as the two men were now unable to hold themselves up and retain air in their lungs. At the same time, Jesus’ side is pierced with a lance and his heart is opened, with a flow of blood and water.

“But” Fr Haggerty asks rhetorically, “who is really pierced in heart at his moment? In my understanding, a terrible wound takes place in the heart of the Sorrowful Mother as she now watches a man unrepentant, perhaps still cursing with venom, slowly expire. There is no indication in the Gospel that he converted. Instead, Mary sees this man die without sorrow for his sins, fulfilling the earlier prophecy of Simeon at Jesus’ Presentation. The echo of that wound in Mary is invoked over and over in apparitions, as she begs us to pray and sacrifice for the conversion of sinners – perhaps especially on their deathbeds. The holy tradition, dating back to medieval times of the Sorrowful Heart of Mary, would seem tied to this moment at Calvary.”

I am also struck by a comment in the book that “any power over souls should be renounced with an absolute determination.” What does he mean by this?

Fr Haggerty explains that the context for his use of the phrase is “in speaking of God’s renunciation of power in offering his mercy to us. God refuses to exercise divine omnipotence before the capacity of human freedom. He does not coerce love; he does not overwhelm souls. In his respect for human freedom, he will not force an acceptance of his mercy. He makes himself in a sense vulnerable and powerless before the human soul. It is a mystery of divine humility that God awaits our personal response to his initiative.

Reflecting on the implications of this, he goes on to say, “If this is so of God’s way with souls, there is surely a lesson for our own desire to convert others to truth and to faith. The temptation of a zealous person of faith may be to seek a conquest of others in the effort to convert them. The impulse to overcome or dominate another’s freedom with the good intention of bringing someone back to faith or to the sacraments is sometimes not recognised. But too wilful a zeal on our own part in the effort to convert another may in fact interfere with God’s more humble and mysterious approach to souls. The fact is”, he suggests, “we are often powerless ourselves in facing the resistance to faith even in loved ones. In that experience we share something of the mystery concealed in God’s heart as he awaits the return of souls to his love.”

Following on this theme I quote from the book: “People are never converted by argument.” How are they converted then?

Fr Haggerty responds by reminding me that “There are cases in which people have been converted to Christian faith by a sustained intellectual journey into truth. The conversion to Catholicism of Blessed John Henry Newman is an illustration. Admittedly, good reading is often an essential contribution to the discovery of faith’s appeal. Sometimes the example of this is rather dramatic: St Edith Stein read the life of St Teresa of Avila in a single night and asked for baptism the next day.

“But” he reflects, “One might question whether a philosophical mind of her depth was converted by an argument, or rather entered into a mysterious attraction for God under the influence of the personal testimony of the great Carmelite foundress. It is contact with the personal impact and example of a holy person or of holy settings that seems to be the most consistent pattern in bringing about conversions. Holiness is attractive of its very nature, because the presence of God is hovering nearby then. In the presence of holiness, the heart is drawn to something immensely appealing that goes beyond simply an intellectual experience.

“In my view, the doorway to faith and a deeper desire for God does not open because our mind is drily convinced of religious truth – even as it is important to arrive at Christian truth and remain there. The deeper aspects of religious conviction are always accompanied by and require a hunger for God and a passion for closer relations with him. This does not take place simply by means of an argument. Encounters with the reality of sacredness in persons and places must happen.”

Given a long section in his book about the role of priests in conversion, I ask Fr Haggerty: what part does a priest’s own example play in the conversion of souls?

He is convinced that “the respect of a priest for his vocation, evidenced by his reverent celebration of Mass, his availability for frequent times of confession, his readiness to support souls in any need, seem often to have a decisive effect in the realm of grace for others. The seriousness with which a priest treats sacred truths of our Catholic faith – his own deep conviction in preaching the truth of God and Jesus Christ crucified – is likewise bound to draw souls to the attraction for God.”

He points out to me that “The conversion of souls is ultimately God’s grace. But Our Lord in his humility wants to use imperfect instruments for this work. Today we need priests especially who are men of prayer and who witness to a love for prayer. People who see a priest praying in an adoration chapel or in the quiet of a church are often impressed by their own need for prayer. The example of prayerfulness in priests can do untold good for others. The priests’ generosity of spirit and good-natured love for people, especially the hidden poor in our midst, is also a wonderful quality to spark new flames among people for a love of God.”

He is convinced that “When a priest knows his own life as a privilege of grace and mercy, he is inevitably a greater source of grace to others in spiritual need.”

Why does he write that to “persevere in exposing the truth of human sinfulness” may be for some priests “their most difficult suffering”? Fr Haggerty responds that “It is much easier, especially in today’s Church, to speak only encouraging words of optimism. But optimism is sometimes a false façade, neglecting the reality of truth. The mercy of God, for instance, is not a blanket reprieve that has no requirement of repentance and of a desire to amend one’s life. Conversions are costly experiences in real life. The need of a priest to expose the truth of sinfulness – out of love for souls – is to expose as well the open door to repentance and the opportunity of sacramental confession.”

He emphasises that “Any priest who perseveres in this task must also provide the easy opportunity for confessions. The suffering of the priest comes in part because the era in which we live upholds as almost sacred the private judgment of the individual person on moral matters and the social indecency of any challenge to another’s moral decisions. But this exaltation of tolerance as an ultimate social virtue is not compatible with a priest’s responsibility to seek the salvation of souls. The suffering for a priest can be not only the unpopular repercussions received by exposing a need for conversion and a struggle with sins. The suffering arises as well, in knowing that such preaching is often rejected.”

He adds with conviction, “A priest should suffer in his awareness that souls are at times in grave danger of eternal loss.”

I have a final question, relating to Fr Haggerty’s comment in his book of the importance for priests of “adopting a poorer lifestyle”. He is clear on this: “It would seem, to me at least, because of much time in my life with the Missionaries of Charity and the poor and much experience of Third World poverty that a priest has a particular responsibility to be aware of material suffering in this world. I know that many priests are very close to the poor and very generous in assistance out of their own pocket to the poor.

“In New York City, the poor on the streets seem always to have a friendly response to the priest, which may reflect long years of a priesthood here that has kept in close touch with the poor.

“But”, he adds with emphasis, “Lifestyle is nonetheless a serious issue in the priesthood. The priest is called to live and act “in persona Christi”, which includes not just sacramental operations but a reflection of Jesus’ accessibility to people and also his bare simplicity of lifestyle.” He muses, “My own view is that a negative impression is conveyed when priests live too well. Many people struggle in raising a family, meeting expenses, sending children to school, and this is in Western settings.

“The priest should try to keep money spent on himself to a minimum so that he can give to others when needs present themselves and reflect as well a certain detachment from unnecessary worldliness in his life. Money spent on self can be money not available for a poor person’s need. For a priest, this statement has more importance than for a father raising a family in the world.”