Michael Rennier and I first met some years ago as we moved in the same vaguely intellectual circles that congregated in various places between New York and Boston. He was an Anglican clergyman then, having been raised a Pentecostal Christian and endured a long sojourn in the Episcopal Church in which he was called to formal ministry. Michael disguises his intellectual rigour with a light heart and a good sense of humour, and I was deeply pleased to see that rigour guided him, his wife, and family into the Catholic Church in 2011. I believe he had been knocking on the doors of the Archdiocese of Boston asking to be brought in under the Pastoral Provision of John Paul II, but I imagine the last thing that Archdiocese wanted to take on was the cost of a man with a wife and kids to look after as a seminarian, then deacon, then priest.
Things moved along anyhow, and Michael moved his family back to his ancestral homeland in the Middle West – T.S. Eliot country – to find his way in life and see what the future would bring. Thanks be to God, last week, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Michael was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church at the Old Cathedral of Saint Louis in Missouri.
In a beautiful reflection, Michael recalls sitting in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library as a Protestant clergyman-in-training:
I was reading the Apologia; the story of [John Henry Newman’s] conversion to the Catholic Church. I was particularly bothered by one specific bit. I was at the part where Newman makes his point that, fundamentally, there is no difference whatsoever between Arianism and Anglicanism. One is reviled and discredited, the other respectable and vital. But look closer, Newman argued, look underneath. What is there? Rebellion. There, buried beneath the sartorial splendor, the monarchy, the gorgeous liturgy, the incense, the polyphonic chant, and the prestige of Oxford… was a group of Christians steeped in the bitter throes of willfulness. […] Newman got to me that day, blinking in the fluorescent lights of a now disappeared world. My own world, comfortable as it had been, began to slip away as well.
After all, outward appearances are not always what they seem.
Further along, Michael relates attending Mass as a Protestant:
It was fascinating. I was attracted to it. I felt something solid about it, comforting, and yet, I knew for a fact that these people worshiped statues! Okay, with age my critique became a bit more subtle. But in the long run, aren’t all our arguments against the Church just as silly and vain? She outlasts us all. We can kick and scream and throw tantrums; legislate against her, slander her, outlaw her priests and persecute her children: the Church still prevails. She fears nothing. And because of this, she is able to be generous and patient.
The greatest novel of all time (no one argue with me on this) is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. In it, Waugh describes a family who keep their country seat at Brideshead in the ancestral home. The family itself is a mixed lot; A father living abroad in sin, a domineering mother, a son who is a flamboyant dandy, a worldly daughter, and an overly-childlike daughter. Waugh describes the slow decline of Brideshead as the family disintegrates and scatters. This dissipation works itself out universally in the advent of the Great War [sic], which finally swallows up all of England and turns Brideshead into quarters for Army command. In the end, though, we are left with a scene in the house’s private chapel, where the altar lamp is still lit and a lone priest says mass for an old woman. I am a lot like that family. Many of us probably are.
You see, conversion is a gift. Mother Mary holds her Son for us, patiently suffering at the foot of the Cross. We can ignore her, go our own way, rebel … it doesn’t matter. Hanging on the Cross, Christ says to each and every one of us “Behold your Mother.” She is here still. Waiting. We may be elsewhere, doing God knows what, but above the altar the candle still flickers. This is the light by which, in time, we find our way home.
His reflection is worth reading in full.
I hope readers will join me in getting a prayer of thanksgiving in for Fr Michael as well as for his wife and their five children. This is barely even the beginning.