Arts & Books Books

Spiritual books: a humbling conversion story

Ulf Ekman (ulfekman.org)

Subtitled Our Journey to the Catholic Church, The Great Discovery, by Ulf and Birgitta Ekman (Ignatius Press, 280pp, £13.75/$17.95 ) is a more unusual story than most. Ulf Ekman was the founder and pastor of Word of Life, a Swedish non-denominational church with a worldwide congregation that grew to 200,000, and both he and his wife had converted to Christianity in 1970 and 1971.

Living in secularised Sweden, they had also unconsciously imbibed many prejudices against Catholicism. As Birgitta admitted, when they began to encounter the Church for the first time at the start of the millennium, “we were really not prepared for the strong spirituality in the Catholic Church”.

Birgitta discovered a life of St Brigid of Sweden, her namesake. Then she and her husband came across the story of Faustina Kowalska with its Catholic understanding of suffering that could be united with Christ’s on the Cross.

The couple visited Rome for the first time in 1999. They read Witness to Hope, George Weigel’s biography of St John Paul II, and came to understand, in Ulf’s words, “what a spiritual giant this man was.” They were taken to see St Peter’s excavated tomb in St Peter’s Basilica, asking themselves the question, “Was there really a Petrine ministry that stretches through time?” Again and again, faced with their ignorance and prejudices, they confessed, “Why has nobody told us that this is the way Catholics believe?”

As charismatic Christians, the Ekmans were fortunate to meet charismatic Catholics and to learn from their new friends and from the Church’s own liturgy that “the Spirit and the Church, just like the spirit and body, really belong together”.

It is humbling for cradle Catholics to witness the couple’s development in faith which we so often take for granted and which they are experiencing for the first time, such as realising that Catholics venerate Our Lady but do not worship her. Ulf adds: “When I looked through the Bible more carefully, I saw in fact how much there was about Mary.”

He notes a conflict between his own form of Pentecostal renewal – “when the new continually replaces the old” – and tradition, the sacred continuity “that is passed on through the generations”. This led to the acceptance that he “could not simply pick and choose among different truths and sift out what I did not like”.

The historicity of the Church, her authenticity, her claims about herself and her authority were all examined. As for the Protestant churches, the Ekmans’ reading of the lives of saints such as Padre Pio helped them to accept that “the saints often suffered and were misunderstood … but they did not leave the Church and start
their own”.

Having come to understand the role of Our Lady, the teaching on purgatory, the particular status of the Pope, the priesthood and transubstantiation, the couple were ready to enter the Church by 2010. Four more years elapsed while they prayed for the best way to leave Word of Life, for whose membership they felt very responsible, at the same time as the Church “drew us with a magnetic force”.

It is an inspiring story, well worth reading to remind ourselves of the sacrifices and humble self-examination converts often make in their pursuit of truth.

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A beautifully produced volume, Catholic Traditions and Treasures: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (by Dr Helen Hoffner, Sophia Institute Press, 144pp, £15/$20), is full of information and scholarship yet accessible to the general reader. It would make an excellent gift for convert friends who are eager to learn of the culture surrounding the faith; far more than mere assent to the teachings of the catechism.

There are sections on the Vatican, the hierarchy, religious orders, the liturgical year, public and private Catholic devotions, what Catholics wear and religious art, among other subjects. I suspect many long-standing Catholics might also benefit from its pages.

Indeed, I learnt many new things, such as that at the anointing of the sick, “custom dictates that someone with a lit, blessed candle meet the priest at the door”; that October, along with May, is the month of the rosary in memory of Our Lady’s intercession at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, and her miracle at Fatima on October
13, 1917.

I also learnt the different classes of relics; that the well-known prayer to our guardian angel goes back to the 1100s; and that chalking the letters C, M and B on the lintel of the door at Epiphany means “Christus mansionem benedicat”, as well as the initials of the Three Wise Men. What was most heart-warming was learning of Mother Teresa’s “Flying Novena” which consists in praying the Memorare 10 times in one day, nine times for the novena itself and the 10th in thanksgiving – the expectation that one’s requests would be answered.

Doubtless the Ekmans, too, are now learning all these sometimes unusual but always prayerful aspects of the faith, whether praying to St Anthony for a lost item or singing the Regina Caeli during the Easter season.