Tag Archives: convert

Book Review: Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro

Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.

Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.

We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).

However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.

The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years.  He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.

Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.

The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas.  Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.

The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.

I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.

The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896).  That chapter is full of drama and humanity.

Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here).  In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.

Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.

Confessions of an Ex-Drug Addict

By guest writer T.E.W., with Jean Elizabeth Seah.

I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.
– attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

My life thus far might seem a waste, even something loathsome, to many people, but now I know it has been redeemed, and is in the process of being redeemed. God willing, I shall yet honor Christ, though I have been all things unholy.

I was raised by a hard-working father and a loving, vivacious mother in a quiet outer suburb of Queensland, on four acres of lush property. From the tender age of three, I joined dance classes  which were the highlight of my days, starting with jazz and then progressing to tap-dancing with my mother. All my life, I have found it difficult to remain committed to anything – save dance.

Unfortunately, this love of dancing contributed to my ostracization in school. The other boys were typical jocks, who enjoyed sport and play-fighting. I never understood them, and they labelled me a “gay” for being a dancer.

Being bullied through school, and never finding a true friend, I suffered from low self-esteem and found it difficult to concentrate in class. Things became worse when my family was forced to move to an inner suburb in my teens, where I was abused by a family friend, and introduced to drugs by someone who lived next to the dance school.

No one in my family knew what damage hard drugs could do, and I accepted them, hungry for what appeared to be friendship from the person who proffered them. As Professor Peter Cohen, Director of the Center for Drug Research in Amsterdam, has concluded from sociological research, drugs are a replacement for human connection.

“…human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe… we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.”

– Johann Hari, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think”, The Huffington Post, 20 January 2015

Thus, at the age of 19, I began my relationship with speed, and later moved on to ice. My reliance on methamphetamines started off innocuously, producing highs which enabled me to create exquisite drawings, expressing my inner self which had been rejected by my schoolmates. Then I craved more and more of the drugs, and they swallowed up my life.

My parents went through hell. Sometimes I went without drugs for six months, so I labored under the illusion that I was in control – but no, I had long ceded control to the drugs. Once, after having been awake for about four days injecting ice, I drove home (only God knows how I got home without running off the road)  and made a bowl of Weet-Bix before crashing on the couch. The next thing I knew, I was standing, in motion and having checked the time began to panic because I was supposed to meet a friend. I drove to her place, and after some frantic phone calls I managed to get in contact with her. She too had been on drugs, and we both couldn’t remember what we had been doing for a whole two-hour period. I ran my hand through my hair and found Weet-Bix mashed against it. I wonder what the living room looks like, I thought.

When I returned home, my mother was terrified. She had watched me standing in the living room contorting my hands and uttering garbled words for approximately two hours before dashing out of the house. Her little boy had turned into a monster.

Life progressed from bad to worse. An acquaintance taught me how to break into homes, stealing any copper we could find in order to finance our drug habits. I had failed high school, and had no aim in life, save the next hit which could release me from this misery, for awhile.

Then my mother had cancer.

I had been brought up in the [Australian] Uniting Church, but never understood any of its teachings. Over time, I became an arrogant, agnostic atheist, but not so arrogant as to reject any evidence of a higher power if it was presented to me. I immersed myself in the goth subculture.

After three years of caring for my mother at home while my father continued working to support us, the certainty grew on me that the end of her life was near. My birthday is on the Feast of St. Monica (as I now know), and I had the strong feeling that my mother was going to die exactly a month later.

The last week of my mother’s life was spent in palliative care in the QE2 Hospital in Brisbane. I was about to step into the shower when Dad called to say that Mum had passed away. I received the news with dead calmness, and returned to the bathroom. It was only when the water hit my body that I felt my heart break, and let out a primal scream of loss.

This was the beginning of a series of events and signs which led me to conclude that a higher power must exist. For the first few months, I refused to even acknowledge this supreme power as God, instead resorting to New Age terms like “the universe” and “source energy.”

I began visiting various churches and reading the Bible about three and a half years later, after spending the intervening time dabbling in tarot, crystals and chakra meditations, an attempt to understand God from a mathematical and scientific perspective. I could never find a home in any of those churches. The Pentecostal services left me with an emotional high which would quickly subside.

Then, last year, after staying clean for awhile, I visited an old acquaintance and fell headlong into the trap of drug addiction again.

Yet, this was what eventually led me to the Catholic Church, for I resolved to amend my life, and checked myself into a facility which happened to be right beside a lovely old church near the Brisbane River.

Still, I would not have stepped into a Catholic church, if my room-mate had not said, “There’s free food next door!” The church has a coffee ministry for the homeless twice a week. Through their corporal work of mercy, they performed the greatest spiritual mercy for me – leading me home to my heavenly Father, away from my sinful past.

At first, as an obstinate Protestant, I shied away from addressing the priests as “Father.” But soon, I began to see how the Catholics truly lived the Gospel, and in my first Mass, kneeling before the Holy Eucharist, I finally found the peace of Christ, the peace which the world cannot give.

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (3:16).
— Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

I was received into the Catholic Church this past Easter Vigil, and am just beginning to grasp its glorious spiritual treasures. Further, God has blessed me with a loving new spiritual family, in the parish, in Verbum Dei, and in granting me what I thought impossible – a human being who loves me in spite of my past, and who wants to share a life with me, though grave uncertainty lies ahead. Our only certainty is God, after all. What amazing grace, which saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now, I see.

If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and religious today.
– St. Josephine Bakhita

Originally published at Aleteia.

The Conscience of the Modern Man

By guest writer Kachi Ngai.

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church

We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.

Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.

I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.

Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.

Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)

A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.

Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.

The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).

By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.

The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

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References:

Armstrong, David (2015). “Newman’s Conversion of Conscience and the Resolution of the Crisis of Modernity.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.

Henley, William (1875). Invictus. England.

Newman, John Henry (1885). “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Pell, George (2005). “The Inconvenient Conscience.”

Kneeling at My First Mass

By guest writer Tasman Westbury.

In the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. – Philippians 2:10

I was raised in the Uniting Church, but never truly grasped any of its teachings, and spent several years as an atheist before a series of events and signs led me to conclude that there was a higher, spiritual power, which I eventually came to accept as God. This Easter Vigil, thanks to Divine Providence, I was received into the Catholic Church.

When I first walked into a Mass, what really struck me was when everyone knelt for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. What encouraged me to kneel when everyone else was kneeling was that it is written in the Bible, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:6)

When you feel something inside, you should be able to express that in a gesture, and that gesture should be a clear and concise representation of your belief. Humility is not expressed in big, loud gestures. Humility is quiet and small in physical appearance. It’s not seeking attention or approval, but rather the renouncement of yourself in a moment, for the sake of the good of another.

Kneeling is a gesture of making oneself quiet and small in the face of the presence of God, allowing ourselves to feel small in the presence of God, so that we recognize that we are like grass, which is here one day and gone the next (cf. Psalm 103:15-16; 1 Peter 1:24). Objectively, we can humbly say, without feeling that we are diminishing our worth, “we are absolutely nothing.” But at the same time, we are so special and of great value to God, Who has created us in His image and likeness, Who has suffered and died for each one of us, so that we may share in His divine life of Love.

Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own Liturgy.
— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

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Image: Joy-Sorrow

Tasman Westbury is a new Catholic who is currently exploring the Church’s treasure trove, which is found within prayer life.