Two of the blogs which I follow are written by a young woman who lives in the U S A and is obviously very creative and artistic. Coupled with her love of our very own U 2 her blogged pieces make for interesting and stimulating reading. ( the blogs are ’ A Reflection On The Water’ and ‘A Light On The Water’ , see Blogs I Like in margin) So when Andrea approached me to help with a college project I was happy to do so. She was set the task of painting a word picture of somebody's experiences from a different culture to her own, and to that end she interviewed me over facebook on March 13 th. As the main body of the ‘chat’ concerns my ‘conversion’ story I thought it might be of interest to some Hermonites to share it here.
Andrea: First one: Where were the schools you attended located in Ireland?
Gerard: In Limerick city
Andrea: Okay. Thanks. What years were you there? Just trying to put it into perspective with other world events, etc.
Gerard: Ah dates...I left Secondary school about 1974
Andrea: Okay. How long were you there for?.
Gerard: About 6 years at junior level and the same at senior level.
Andrea: Okay. Now for some slightly more difficult questions... In the questionnaire, you talked about your “dramatic conversion experience.” What was your life like before it?
Gerard: I was a fairly devout 'religious' Catholic, attending church and trying to live my life as best I could. I knew there must be a God from the glorious creation etc,. but I had no first hand knowledge of Him. I was always curious about other world religions views and read up as much as I could on them. Through a magazine called The Plain Truth I started to read the Bible for the first time and from my knowledge of it, I realised that whatever I might be I most definitely was not (according to the Biblical definition) a Christian.
Andrea: So it was a fairly self and God-initiated conversion? Were there people who influenced you as well?
Gerard: Yes, apart from the magazine and the Bible I was also listening to evangelist Billy Graham on the radio. so intellectually I knew what a 'real' Christian was. Also in my second last year at school a classmate had become a a 'Jesus freak' as we referred to him. The change in his life was hugely impressive and he spent all his free time telling us, about Jesus and being 'born again.’ To be honest at the time I thought he was intellectually weak but there was something compelling about his radical lifestyle and his simple message that spoke loudly to me.
Andrea: That is so neat. You wrote in your “Catholic Church Abuse” blog entry that your “hope is that the baby won’t be tossed out with the bathwater as the distinction between the glorious message of Jesus and the moribund works of failed religion are muddled in the public mind.” Yet given your childhood schooling, it surprises me that you didn’t toss the baby “out with the bathwater” yourself. How did you come to make the distinction between what people do in the name of Christ (religion, etc.), and Christ Himself?
Gerard: I could see a marked difference between the professed Christianity of the Catholic church with all it tradition of pomp and dogma and the teaching of Jesus set out in the Gospels which by comparison shone like a precious jewel. You should understand that back then the Bible was a closed book for most Catholics, we were not encouraged to read it, so when I did it was new and fresh and revelatory. Also the effect of that 'simple' Gospel in the life of my schoolmate and in the preaching of Graham seemed to me to be endued with a power and integrity I had not witnessed before.
Andrea Would you say that your treatment in the Catholic schools had a role in your rejection of Catholicism (if so, how?)
Gerard I think the lack of Christlikeness exhibited in the lives of the ‘professional’ clergy and Brothers was an influence. I recall a Christian Brother visiting our class to recruit for vocations to the Brothers asking the question ’ why would you not consider joining the religious life ?’. I put my hand up and answered, “ because they (the Brothers) are in my experience neither ‘Christian’ or ‘brotherly’ ‘ Needless to say my contribution went down like a lead balloon ! Later after I had become a Christian believer I learned to separate fallible human beings from the truth as expressed in Scripture. I then rejected Catholicism not just because of my perceived lack of reality in it, but on the basis that its tenets did not always concur with the clear teaching of the Bible.
Andrea I hate to bring up bad memories, but could you tell me a bit more about your time in school?
Gerard I was a day attendee at the Ard Scoil Ris (Rice High School, named after the Brother;s founder Ignatius Rice) Secondary school. The only abuse I witnessed there was corporal punishment and ‘cruel’ verbal put downs from the Principal, Bro. Harry Cotter. He would humiliate you in class and get the student behind to administer punishment by hitting you in the back using phrases like ‘down the cripple’ and ‘hit him harder’ Also one of the lay teachers was given to physical punishments and other teachers administered slaps on the hand using a black leather strap made explicitly for the purpose. Sometimes the strap would be used to hit you on the ankles.
Andrea: Have others of your former schoolmates taken a similar route to the one you've already mentioned , in terms of rejecting religion and choosing Christ? It seems to be something I hear fairly often from Irish people... U2, for instance.
Gerard: To my knowledge no one else in my class had a similar experience. And it was a few years after I had left school that I met up with my 'J Freak' friend in a factory, and to my astonishment he was still radiating the 'joy of the Lord', even in that difficult atmosphere. We had many discussions and again nothing he particularly said was new to me apart from his claim of knowing Jesus Christ personally. This 'knowing' was the hurdle I could not cross over even with all my book knowledge and keenness to discover the true path.
Andrea: So what finally brought you to the point of "knowing?"
Gerard: The unexpected intervention of the Lord himself, I believe. Quite simply one night as I was preparing to go to bed I became overwhelmed with a sense of my own sinfulness and unworthiness. I was convinced that my sins had put Christ on the cross and that He died there for me. The scene of His crucifixion was almost like a vision , I could see and feel the experience intensely. As I cried over my wickedness this overwhelming tide of forgiveness and grace swept over my whole being and I knew for the first time in my life that this Jesus who died on the cross two thousand years ago, died for me, loved me, and was alive !
This was the most momentous single event of my life and I knew at the time that it was going to be hugely significant. I was so shaken and elated by the experience that I got dressed and went out (it was after midnight) for a walk to try and take in what had just occurred. I have often said since that it was fortunate that I met no one in my nocturnal rambling because the way I was feeling I would have hugged them to death as the feeling of wellbeing I had was so intense.. Later that morning I wrote about the event carefully in my Diary because I felt I would not believe it on the following day if the feeling had evaporated.. The diary entry wasn’t just a record of what had taken place but a charter of how I wished to live from that time on, loosely based on what I knew of the Sermon on the Mount. When I did wake the following morning the ‘experience’ had lasted and I knew that I had begun a new kind of life ( later I would learn that the New Testament term for what had happened that night was me being ‘born again’)
Andrea: Wow. That reminds me of Augustine's conversion. We've been reading his Confessions in my Philosophy class.
Gerard: Augustine I aint ! but God is good.
Andrea: Amen to that. Maybe this should be obvious, but I've been wondering why you haven't chosen to align yourself with a Protestant denomination. It seems like something many former Catholics do, at least here in the US.
Gerard: Aha...because I was always careful only to align myself to what I knew to be true, and that was Jesus. For a year after my conversion I continued to attend Mass and got more out of it than I had ever before, but always as a memorial and not as a repeat of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Meanwhile I went denomination shopping trying to meet other people who shared my experience of the New Birth. Eventually I found a non-denominational 'Brethren' group where everyone from the age of 16 to 60 could talk about 'becoming a believer' and discovering God's love for themselves. I threw my lot in with them for many years and enjoyed sweet times of fellowship and growing in the knowledge of the Word. I then separated myself from the Catholic faith as I discovered more and more in the Bible that could not be reconciled to that doctrine and practise. I endeavoured not to become anti-Catholic in a vitriolic or aggressive sense as Irish people were fiercely loyal to their ‘faith‘, and I had no wish to complicate the Gospel by 'bashing' my former coreligionists along the way. Over the years many have come to personal faith in Jesus and replaced dry church dogma with a living relationship with God Himself.
Andrea: That makes sense. The religious abuses in Ireland seem like a real struggle to get over, in terms of people coming to Christ. Do you think Ireland can fully recover from them? Is there hope for the Church there, or is the strained relationship between religion and people too much?
Gerard: I think the Catholic Church has too long enjoyed the trappings of political power over genuine spiritual hunger, whether it can ever discover or retrieve that is hard to know. In the 1970's the Charismatic Movement brought many church people to the Lord and to the Bible but quickly the 'official clergy' intervened to contain the Movement and effectively killed it off. I do believe that the church Jesus died for is that city on the hill which gives light to the surrounding nations by example. And part of that example is the selfless life of community where all have all in common
Andrea: Well, it seems you and your friends are doing what you can to shine bright.
Gerard: The blueprint is easy to recite, the doing of it is (as you know) not so easy.