Ten years ago this month, I became a Catholic. It happened in the attic of the guest house at Ealing Abbey. There was just me, a friend and a monk, and the operation took about an hour. Afterwards we went for cocktails. I started things as I meant to go on.
I guess the two big questions to ask a convert are: why did you do it and are you happy? Answering the first point is hard. It’s like asking a man why he married a woman. There’s a temptation to invent a narrative – to say, “this happened, that happened and before we knew it we were where we are today”. But the simpler, yet more complex, answer is this: I fell in love.
I was lucky to grow up in a household open to religious belief. My grandparents were Christian spiritualists; Grandma advertised as a clairvoyant. Mum and Dad became Baptists in the 1990s. I remember the pastor one Sunday telling us that evolution was gobbledygook. The teenager in me came to regard the faithful as fools, but I was wrong. I couldn’t see that they were literate, inquisitive, musically gifted and the kindest people you’d ever meet. But I went my own way and embraced Marxism.
By the time I arrived at Cambridge University I was a hard-left Labour activist and a militant atheist. I saw life as a struggle. Salvation could only come through class revolution. The life of the individual was unimportant. Mine was unhappy. Very unhappy. I disliked myself and, as is so common, projected that on to a dislike of others. I’m ashamed now to think of how rude and mean I was. Perhaps I was ashamed then, too, because I had fantasies of obliterating myself from history.
History was my redemption. In my second year I studied the Civil War. I discovered a world more colourful and distinct than today’s. A world of faith; of saints and martyrs. My Marxist sympathy was for the Protestant Diggers but I was intrigued by Archbishop William Laud and his fight to restore the sacramental dignity to the Anglican Church. For some reason I started to visit far-flung churches in Kent. I’d get up at 6am and cycle to a Sunday early morning service at Seal village. It calmed my soul.
I suddenly felt a great need to reconcile myself to something. Because Anglicanism was the only thing on offer at Cambridge (the Catholic chaplaincy felt like an Irish embassy), I asked to be baptised into the Church of England. Anglo-Catholicism was the closest I could get to Laud’s vision of majesty incarnate. But it wasn’t enough. Although I had made tremendous progress, something inside me said that I hadn’t yet reached my destination. Something was missing. Prayer revealed it to be the Catholic Church – the alpha, the rock, the bride of Christianity. I converted quietly in 2005 without letting many others know, including my family. It was like running away to Gretna Green to get married in secret.
Of course, the narrative I’ve given could be something I’ve constructed in hindsight. The journey was never straightforward; there were false starts and I often got lost. I remain uncertain of exactly why I converted at all. But I know I was absolutely right to.
What have I gained that’s unique to Catholicism? Two things. First, structure. When you become a Catholic, you become a part of something much bigger than yourself. I can go to any place in the world and am guaranteed to find a church where there will be a Mass that I will understand and can take part in. I will share with the communicants a faith, a culture and a history spanning two thousand years. When I go to the Sistine Chapel and look at the ceiling, I don’t just see something pretty. I see something that means something to me personally because I believe it all happened. The story of the Martyrs of Compiègne is my story, too – the nuns who were killed in 1794 for their refusal to accept the authority of the French Revolution over their faith. And I understand why the Mexican martyrs of the Cristero War shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before their executioners opened fire. As a historian, I no longer just study history. I am a part of it.
Structure plugs you into humanity. If I am lonely or afraid, I’ve got somewhere to turn to. I recently lectured on a cruise ship: eight days at sea with 2,000 strangers. If you’re a shy boy, like me, this could be hell. But I was relieved to find that there was a friendly priest on board. Suddenly, my day had greater purpose (Mass in the mornings). More importantly, I had someone to talk to who understood what I was saying. And through this charming cleric, I got talking to other Catholics who shared the instant warmth that says: “Howdy stranger, I think we might be related.”
We met a lady on board who had a daughter with Down’s syndrome. When she was born people said: “What a pity.” But the Church said she was beautiful and gave the child a role in the community. Now the parish priest is her best friend. There is no judgment in the Catholic Church, only love. I get angry when people paint it as distant or cruel. They simply can’t have ever been to Mass.
The second thing I draw from Catholicism is hope. The consolation of the sacraments. I know that no matter how bad things get, I can always go to Confession, take part in the Mass and set things right again. Every day is a whole new day. And every day offers the chance for salvation. In every second of every hour there is a Mass being said. With each Eucharist, we relive the sacrifice of Jesus. As a young Protestant, I saw the crucifixion as something historical that only happened once and would never happen again. Now I know that His sacrifice is constant and eternal. For people who live with despair, and that’s almost all of us, this promise is astonishing. One of the hardest things to believe is that someone else could love you unconditionally. We Catholics have proof. I suspect that this gift has saved my life. I might have died without it. It’s that powerful.
Conquering your own demons is the beginning of seeing the light in others. I’ve abandoned Marxism (a whole other complicated story) in part because I’ve realised that you can’t save this world by trying to tell others what to do. Politics is impotent compared to a kind word or a helping hand. Not that I’ve become a saint over the past 10 years – on the contrary, I’m more conscious of my failings. When you become a Catholic you find lots of new ways of feeling guilty.
But one way I hope to do good is by telling everyone about my faith. And I do it as often as possible. I tell them that I am exquisitely lucky. I live in a world of mystery, where I get to witness the real presence of Christ every week at Mass. I’ve met clerics of boundless charity and wisdom; the parish priest is one of my best friends, too. I’ve gained a friend in Jesus and a spiritual mother in Mary. When I’m lost for words, I pray to St Francis de Sales. When the seas get choppy, I pray to St Christopher.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel as though I converted to Catholicism so much as my soul returned to it. This is my journey’s end. I am home.
Tim Stanley is a historian and writer for the Daily Telegraph