Catholic writer explains conversion, discusses new book

The only writer to have interviewed two Popes: John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger, has just released his latest book, “Why I Believe.”  In it, Vittorio Messori explains how he went from being an agnostic to becoming one of the most prestigious Catholic apologists of his day.

Messori, who edited the book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” as well as “The Ratzinger Report,” spoke with reporter Luis del Espanyol and granted this exclusive interview to CNA.  In it, he explains his reasons for writing this new book and also recounts the story of his conversion.

CNA: Mr. Messori, why did you write this book?

Messori: Because readers asked to know "my conversion."  For many years they insisted that I tell it all. I used to speak in generalities, giving generic responses, especially since I do not enjoy discussing my private affairs. I also was aware that it is very difficult - indeed, it is impossible - to describe an internal revolution like one that I experienced many years before, one that suddenly changed my life forever. In addition, many fellow journalists insisted on interviewing me about the deep experience that I had.

In the end, I gave in to the insistence of both readers and colleagues, and I answered the questions in a long interview with the person who, in my opinion, is the best Italian religious historian, Andrea Tornielli, Vatican analyst from Il Giornale (the Milan newspaper founded by Indro Montanelli) and the author of many books. As both Tornielli and the book’s publisher predicted, the book has stirred much interest and curiosity, and it’s already in its fifth edition in Italy, with new translations still coming out.

CNA: What was your conversion like?

Messori: It is the story of a young man who, without foreseeing it or wanting it, was stopped abruptly on the road on which he was walking and was forced to drastically change direction. Many times a conversion - that is, the discovery or rediscovery of the faith - is the result of a search, the point of arrival after a long journey. This is normal. But there are exceptions, and I am one of them.

CNA: So you did not seek to be a Christian?

Messori: I wasn’t searching for anything, I was in good health, I wasn't rich, but I didn't have financial worries either.  I was happy with the agnostic culture that my teachers had imparted on me at school. I was preparing for a career as an entirely secular intellectual, far from religious motivations and concerns. I studied, and because I was young and very sensitive to the fascination with the female gender, I was taking my first steps towards being a career liberal.

CNA: Was your education secular?

Messori: My family was not against Christ, but against the Church.  We rejected the clerical institution, not the Gospel. My mother often put me on guard against priests, and often said that the Church was "only a pub.” My father was more moderate, but never went to church. Of all my relatives, only one aunt went to Mass on Sundays. We called her “the Blessed."

CNA: And at school?

Messori: For 13 years I attended public schools where I was imparted a culture that was more secular than neutral and where, in any case, no teacher talked about religion other than to condemn the Church of the past, and often also the present. After those 13 years I enrolled in college, specifically in the school of Political Science. I soon became one of the favorite students of the famous teachers at that school, all of whom were teachers of agnosticism.

CNA: In college at that time, wasn’t there supposed to be even a hint of transcendence?

Messori: Agnosticism was taught, I mean, not atheism: atheism was considered vulgar, it was considered a religion, although turned upside down. The atheist is one who wastes time and energy arguing with believers, when what he should do is ignore them. Those teachers taught us that the true perspective of the cultured man should be that the problem of religion cannot be solved with reason. And because man has no other instrument superior to his mind, he must abandon any concern about the Hereafter and concentrate only on what can be seen and touched: in history, in the world, in politics. We cannot know whether God exists or not. So why bother? In short, a radical, impenetrable agnosticism. Only a hit from a non-human striker could shatter it.

CNA: And did that striker show up?

Messori: Yes, it came unannounced, without me sensing it or desiring it all. On the contrary, when I realized that if I accepted the faith I would also have to accept certain moral duties, I began to cry, knowing that I would have to destroy my precious address book full of female contacts!

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CNA: What happened to you that was so powerful that caused you to totally change your life?

Messori: In the book I try to explain it, though obviously I do not think I've completely succeeded. All I know is that suddenly, and without having looked for it, between July and August of a now distant 1964, I entered into a kind of new dimension in which the truth of the Gospel, that until then was unknown to me, became very clear and tangible.  Even though I had never attended church, even though I had never studied religion, I found that my perspective as a secularist and agnostic had become suddenly Christian. What's more, Catholic. And I realized I had to go deeper into the truth that I had been given and communicate it to others. So mine was not a "search for faith" but rather from that moment it has been a search for "reasons that make the faith reasonable and believable."  Faith not as an ending point, but as a starting point which I state to be certain (so it seemed in that long-ago summer), and about which I must reflect and inquire, in order to understand why it is "true."

CNA: Mr. Messori, you say you had a mystical experience, even though you were so rational...

Messori: I was, and I am still, a very rational and practical person, and I have nothing in common with visionaries, with those who believe they have divine revelations and inspirations and who consider themselves to be inspired or to be gurus. What happened to me during those two months has been something unique in my life, and this makes me believe in its truth. There was nothing in me that made me predisposed to it. In college, my teachers were very surprised and disappointed when I had to confess that I had been "forced" by a mysterious encounter, to become Catholic, and that therefore I could not continue my cultural collaboration with them. They thought it was a psychiatric crisis, a depression, a mistake, but since I insisted on my new journey, they abandoned me and finally disowned me.

CNA: The book says that you appreciate and value the rational teaching that your teachers gave you…

Messori: Yes, reason is a gift from God that we should use and for which we must be grateful. The mistake is when we enclose reason and turn it into an ideology, rationalism, which asserts that there is nothing beyond or outside it. I'm bored with all of the discussions that are constantly recycled about the incompatibility between science and faith, reason and religion. I draw on my experience, which has confirmed the truth of the words of Blaise Pascal who, as you know, was not what you would call a dreamer, but one of the greatest scientists in history. I have found in my own life that Pascal was right when he wrote: "The final step of reason employed to its utmost is to recognize that there are many things that surpass it.”  Faith, therefore, is not against, but goes beyond reason, without any contrast, but rather complementarity. This is what I have tried to show in my books, including "Why I Believe." I tried to reason with the reader to show that accepting the Gospel mystery is something reasonable.

CNA: You have devoted your life to reconciling faith and reason, right?

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Messori: That's why I felt it a duty to try with my writings to strengthen believers in their belief, and to make non-believers see that they can accept the faith without every denying the demands of reason.”

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