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The Way of BeautyThe Revolving Door

A few months ago, Jimmy Fallon, the late-night host at NBC, was reminiscing with his guest, Bill O’Reilly, about their common experience serving as altar boys at the Latin Mass.  Gleefully, they rattled off the prayers proud of their sure memories.  The host then asked his guest if he was still a practicing Catholic. Yes, Mr. O’Reilly nodded.  Then, eager to react, Mr. Fallon countered in his careless diction and in poor taste: “I don’t practice anymore.”

While many walk out or back out of the Church, others file in.  Some are deciding whether to leave or to stay.  Still others are returning to the Church.  Martyrs to the faith are being made all over the world. The revolving door.

Then there is Tom Selleck who relishes his role of an Irish Catholic Police Commissioner of New York City in the successful series “Blue Bloods” on CBS.   

Brideshead Revisited and Conversions

In 1981, the thirteen-part television series, “Brideshead Revisited,” won international acclaim and numerous awards for its portrayal of a very rich English Catholic family living in the early twentieth century.  The series closely followed the novel by the same title, written by Evelyn Waugh (1903-66).  By the time he had completed the book in 1945, the author was recognized as the greatest English writer of his time. 

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The multiple themes of Brideshead Revisited are adultery and marital love, loss and retrieval of faith, divine grace, and conversion.  “The book is about God.  It is about the human spirit, redeemed; it can survive all disasters,” writes Waugh. 

Death-bed Conversion in Brideshead Revisited

Divine grace provides the very possibility for faith, the Church teaches.  To desire faith or to desire to retrieve one’s faith is already God’s grace at work in a person.  That grace is entirely personal and unique. We see this fact dramatized in a final scene of Brideshead Revisited.   On his death-bed, the family patriarch Lord Marchmain, refuses the Church’s last rites and dismisses the Catholic priest.  He has not practiced his faith for years. But at the request of some family members, the priest returns to dying man.  Then, in the very last moments of Lord Marchmain’s life, with his family surrounding him, slowly, painfully, he pulls his hand up to his forehead, and then drags it down to his breast with as much difficulty, then to his left shoulder.  His fingers make a slow, difficult, and very determined outline of the sign of the cross, but death claims him before he completes the Trinitarian profession of faith.

For Lord Marchmain, faith was not a matter of the head but one of the heart, entirely prompted by God’s grace. This scene remains one of the most powerful in all of literature.  At the end of this scene, one family member returns to the faith, and an agnostic family friend hostile to Catholicism also kneels and signs himself. The revolving door.

“Come Inside”

Waugh, who at age sixteen had announced to his school chaplain that there was no God, made his conversion to Catholicism ten years later.  In his essay, “Come Inside,” he writes for an American readership: “The shallowness of my early piety is shown by the ease with which I abandoned it. There are, of course, countless Catholics who, for a part of their lives at least, lose their faith, but it is always after a bitter struggle—usually a moral struggle. I shed my inherited faith as lightheartedly as though it had been an outgrown coat.” 

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Waugh was asked whether he realized that 99% of the British disagreed with his decision. Yes, he knew.  “Here, I think, the European has some slight advantage over the American. It is possible, I conceive, for a man to grow up in parts of the United States without ever being really aware of the Church's unique position. He sees Catholics as one out of a number of admirable societies, each claiming his allegiance. That is not possible, for a European. England was Catholic for nine hundred years, then Protestant for three hundred.” 

In Tudor England and beyond, thousands were executed for their faith because they would not agree to Henry VIII’s divorce from his lawful wife. Bishop John Fisher, Thomas More, Edmund Campion, John Ogilvy, monks and nuns and many others of this era were martyred for their faith.  Monasteries across Great Britain were pillaged or destroyed.

Waugh continues:  “Then England was agnostic for a century. The Catholic structure still lies lightly buried beneath every phase of English life.  Everywhere history, topography, law, and archaeology reveal Catholic origins. Foreign travel anywhere reveals the local, temporary character of the heresies and schisms and the universal, eternal character of the Church. It was self-evident to me that no heresy or schism could be right and the Church wrong. It was possible that all were wrong, that the whole Christian revelation was an imposture or a misconception. But if the Christian revelation was true, then the Church was the society founded by Christ and all other bodies were only good so far as they had salvaged something from the wrecks of the Great Schism and the Reformation. This proposition seemed so plain to me that it admitted of no discussion. It only remained to examine the historical and philosophic grounds for supposing the Christian revelation to be genuine. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a brilliant and holy priest [Father Martin D’Arcy, S.J.] who undertook to prove this to me, and so on firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion I was admitted into the Church.”

Persecution of Armenian Christians

On April 24,th the Vatican, France, Belgium, Germany, Lebanon, and Russia  joined with the Armenian community to commemorate the “first genocide of the twentieth century,” a phrase used by Pope Francis last week during a Eucharistic liturgy.  In that worship service, Armenian Church leaders spoke passionately about the massacre. 

Beginning at the turn of the nineteenth century and continuing to 1915 and even beyond, the Ottoman Turks systematically slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians.  The genocide was carried out in two stages.  The first part included intellectuals and political leaders, all keepers of the creative flame of an ancient people whose beginnings date back to Antiquity. 

The second part of the genocide turned to the deportation of men, women, children, the elderly and infirm all of whom were placed on death marches that led to the Syrian Desert.  They were deprived of food and water, subjected to robbery and rape.  The hostile desert is where they succumbed to death.  Other massacres included systematic drownings, poison, drug overdose, and mass burnings. The revolving door.

The systematic annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians has been well documented in most history books, except perhaps those in Turkey. The Hebrew University scholar, Yehuda Bauer has called the Armenian genocide “the closest parallel to the Holocaust.”   Last week, the Armenian Church canonized its 1.5 million martyrs. 

The Christian organization, Open Doors, estimates that at least 100 million Christians face persecution particularly in Muslim-dominated countries.  According to the Society for International Rights, up to 80% of acts of persecution are directed to Christians.

The praise Charles de Gaulle offered during World War II to the Résistance is praise that well describes those Christians who undergo martyrdom for the faith: “You who were killed as Resistance Fighters or executed by firing squads, all of you who with your last breath shouted aloud the name of France, you are the men and women who exalted courage, sanctified effort, invented resolution.  You took the lead at the head of the immense, magnificent cohort of the sons and daughters of France who, through their suffering, bore witness to her greatness.”

Waugh Concludes

When asked about his conversion, Waugh replied: “My life since then has been an endless delighted tour of discovery in the huge territory of which I was made free. I have heard it said that some converts in later life look back rather wistfully to the fervor of their first months of faith. With me it is quite the opposite. I look back aghast at the presumption with which I thought myself suitable for reception and with wonder at the trust of the priest who saw the possibility of growth in such a dry soul.”

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“From time to time friends outside the Church consult me. They are attracted by certain features, repelled or puzzled by others. To them I can only say, from my own experience, ‘Come inside.’ You cannot know what the Church is like from outside. However learned you are in theology, nothing you know amounts to anything in comparison with the knowledge of the simplest actual member of the Communion of Saints."
 On stepping in to the revolving door, Evelyn Waugh found his spiritual home … on the inside.

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