Sunday, June 07, 2009

Great News About Fr. Jeffrey Steel

It is always exciting for one convert to watch the conversion of another. I think, in my heart of hearts, that at least part of this excitement is due to the feeling that one did, in the end, make a rational choice--a choice that other reasonable people could be expected to make. This is not to say that those who have not so chosen are not acting rationally, it is only to say that, when leaving one's friends behind, one fervently hopes that one has done the right thing. When honest and intelligent men do as you have done, that is at least consistent with the possibility that you have done, if not the right thing, at least something for which there may be good reasons. Since I started blogging a few years ago, I've seen this happen a few times, and it always brings me great joy--not only for the new convert, but for all the rest of us who long for the unity in Christ's Body for which Our Lord Himself prayed so fervently.

Today, on the Sollemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Fr. Jeffrey Steel announced, at his blog de cura animarum, that he is converting to Roman Catholicism. This is great news to all Catholic bloggers, for anyone with an ounce of sense knows that Fr. Steel has been, and will remain, an intelligent and vigorous defender of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The news may not be welcome everywhere, as Fr. Steel remarks:
I realise that this decision is going to make some really happy, some very sad and others possibily angry. But, I have made the decision with the deepest sense of integrity and by conscience.
While I would not be angry if it were a decision going in the other direction, I do think I would be saddened, so I feel a degree of sympathy for those who may be dispirited by Fr. Steel's decision. Their comfort must lie in that final declaration, that he has acted with integrity and in conscience. He can do no other--they may not command him to.

His story is a deeply moving one for me, personally, coming as I did out of a similar tradition 26 years ago this month. I continue to pray for many of my friends who did not follow me; I hope Fr. Steel has better luck with his, because I sincerely believe that it will be to their benefit. Every religious tradition believes that it has "the truth", and one hopes that it is a love affair with the truth that keeps adherents in their religions, even if the vision of the truth to be found in other traditions is incomplete. If it is for reasons only of obstinacy, or pride, or mere complacency, then it is certainly not a good thing to stay where one is.

It is impossible to write something like that last paragraph without the knowledge that you are going to offend somebody somewhere, however unintentionally. But Fr. Steel puts his finger right on the button when he writes:
What I became aware of was that it was almost impossible to say 'the Church teaching is' within the Anglican church because there are so many various opinions on matters of sacraments, liturgy, morality, scripture etc. What I did not want to experience anymore was proclaiming the teaching of the Church only to end up defending myself rather than the Anglican church defending me. This has become an ever-increasing impossibility that is no secret to the entire Anglican world. My preaching would always be seen as a matter of personal opinion rather than having the authority of the Magisterium that backs up what I teach publicly. Of course there is dissent in the Catholic Church but it is always that, dissent towards what Mother Church proclaims as authoritatively true. It is the truth of Mother Church that I embrace as my own deep personal faith.
Not everyone can make that embrace--it really is an act of faith, rather like jumping into a broad and deep river, hoping to reach the other side in safety. Anyone who attempts to swim the Tiber--especially from as far away as the Thames, will find the waters perilous, but the beauty of St. Peter's Basilica awaits on the other side. If Plato was even half right about the relationship between The Good and The Beautiful, then the Vatican stands as an icon reminding us of the beauty of the truth. There is plenty of beauty in Anglicanism, too--you'll be preaching to the choir if you try to tell me that! But I am reminded of my first trip to Europe in 1990. I went first to London, and then to Paris. I looked at the great churches of London--St. Paul's, Westminster, and others--and found that I was deeply moved by their beauty, but more deeply moved by a sense of loss, the loss of what Fr. Steel calls, rightly, communio. It grieved me that these great places, with their rich history dating back centuries--and more importantly the people for whom these beautiful places were built--were somehow separate from me, and from the rest of my co-religionists. I felt that, if it had not been for some poor choices on the part of the ruling elite of the early 16th century, none of this separation would have happened. I confess it now to my shame: I was angry. When I went to Paris, I was already feeling the sting of this anger, and realizing that it was not good. I went to confession at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, where a kindly old priest, who did his best with English, reassured me that, in the end, truth is one thing, mercy another. The Scriptures constantly tell us, he reminded me, that God waits for the Prodigal Son, and the Father who was waiting was not waiting in anger, but in hope and love. He saw him returning from a long way off, according to the Gospel of Luke--and how could he have seen him "from a long way off" if he had not been already standing there looking out for him, eagerly awaiting his return.

So, instead of dwelling on what hasn't happened yet, or getting myself bogged down in thoughts about what I think ought to happen in the future, I will simply be grateful for what has just happened in the present. Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way:
My deepest gratitude goes to the wonderful woman who said 'yes' to my question over sixteen years ago. She has given me six wonderful children and all of them have a deep Catholic faith and serve Christ as witnesses to his love. Rhea meant her vows 16 years ago and has followed me throughout our marriage as my best friend, supporter and wisest critic. She is so grateful to finally be becoming Catholic as her family did a few years ago. Lumen Gentium reminded me that, Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. And so, I swim with my family entrusted to me by God. The process of our reception is now well under way.
Welcome home, Fr. Steel.