Conversion stories: Faith is spread through individuals
By John Gleason
While every person’s conversion story is unique, each individual’s path led to Christ. Below are two historical conversions and two from today. This concludes the Denver Catholic Register’s two-part series on conversion stories.
Emperor Constantine is well known for his decree that led to religious tolerance and the cessation of persecution of Christians. In the year 313, at the age of 40, Constantine issued the “Edict of Milan,” which in effect said people would be allowed to embrace the faith of their choosing. Although this edict did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire—paganism was also tolerated—it stated that penalties for simply being a Christian were abolished. This event was not only a major turning point for the Church, but a big step forward in the development of western civilization.
Publication of the edict is credited as coming from the conversion of the emperor, but the roots of that conversion are unclear. Some sources say that, as a youth, Constantine simply adopted the faith of his mother while other sources claim the conversion came later when he was an adult.
One story holds that in the year 312, on the night before riding into battle, Constantine had a dream in which he was told to adopt the symbol of the chi-rho, the insignia of Christ and place it on the military standards that held the banners his armies carried into a battle. He did so, won the battle and defeated his enemies.
From that time, Constantine declared himself a Christian and announced his belief that he owed his successes to the protection of the Christian God. For the remainder of his rule, Constantine supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy—including exemption from taxes—and returned Church property which had been confiscated.
Buffalo Bill Cody
One of the more well-known conversion stories that took place in Colorado was that of William Frederick Cody—also known as “Buffalo Bill.” The hunter, soldier—a Medal of Honor winner for his services as a scout for the army—and showman who brought the flavor of the American West to people around the world was terminally ill in 1917 when he came to Denver to visit his sister, Mary Cody Decker. Aware that his time remaining on earth was short, Cody was put in contact with a priest named Father Christopher Walsh. Telling the priest that although he had never belonged to any religion, he had always believed in God, the showman said he wished to die in the Catholic faith. Baptized by Father Walsh, Buffalo Bill Cody died on Jan. 9, 1917, at the age of 70, and was buried on top of Lookout Mountain in Golden.
Phil Webb, 56, is a convert and former clergyman in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. A member of St. Louis Parish in Englewood, he is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Denver.
Baptized a Missouri Synod Lutheran, Webb said he was an Episcopalian from the time he was in the sixth grade but said he really began to take his faith seriously when he was a student at Baylor University.
“It was there I learned the importance of having a personal relationship with Christ,” he said.
Ordained an Episcopal clergyman in 1989, he served in that capacity until he and his family were received into the Roman Catholic Church on Dec. 29, 2004, in Christ the King Chapel at the John Paul II Center in Denver. Webb said he was drawn to Catholicism by its own self-understanding.
“Whatever else the Church may be, she is Christ’s own body, and his bride, which cannot be divided,” he said. “Paul repudiates this very suggestion (of division) in 1 Corinthians 1:13.”
Webb said he was assisted in his spiritual journey by Msgr. Ken Leone, who provided a collection of recorded talks by converts such as apologist Scott Hahn, as well as by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., who Webb called an inspiration.
“He always sounded like a true apostle to me,” he said.
On the subject of conversion, when it comes to what sort of advice he’d have for anyone who might be considering the same sort of conversion journey such as Webb travelled, he cautions that they shouldn’t try too hard to run from their past.
“For instance, initially I made a valiant attempt to undo all of my previous Christian formation in order to fully embrace every aspect of Catholic culture,” he said.
“What I’m coming to realize however, is that my evangelical formation and love for sacred Scripture will always remain prominent in my spirituality, and that’s OK.”
Currently the archdiocesan director of Evangelization and Catechesis for Metro-Area Parishes, James Cavanagh, 55, was born and raised in the Episcopalian Church. He said that, as a child, his faith was an important part of his life but as a teenager he began to pull away.
“By the time I graduated from high school I don’t think I was going to church much, if at all,” he said. “It wasn’t until my engagement when I was 25 that I was reacquainted with the church. I began to see it from a different perspective.”
About this time Cava-nagh started thinking about becoming an Episcopal priest. He was ordained in 1988, subscribing to what he called the “branch theory” of the church. According to this view, the Episcopal Church is a branch of the one Church founded by Christ. The other branches that sprung from that root were the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church.
But during his ministry, Cavanagh was drawing material for his sermons from the Catechism of the Catholic Church—or the pope.
“People thought I was brilliant,” he said with a chuckle. “Little did they know that were simply hearing the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Cavanagh served the Episcopalian Church for 17 years before converting to Catholicism. He said he was drawn to the Church by the simple fact that she is what she says she is: One holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. The writings of Cardinal John Newman and Pope John Paul II also had a lot to do with his conversion.
“In addition to Cardinal Newman, who helped me understand why the Catholic Church is ‘the one true fold’ of Christ, there were many Catholics who paved the way by setting a good example and showing how much they really cared,” he said.
Cavanagh knows that a conversion journey can be a daunting undertaking and when pressed for words of wisdom to offer anyone who might be considering such a change his advice is two-fold.
“If the person asking were a clergyman, I’d say, ‘Don’t delay,’” he said. “If it were a lay person, I’d say, ‘Don’t delay even faster.’”
Cavanagh added that in our increasingly secular society there is a huge amount of ignorance about the Catholic Church and it is crucial that Catholics know their faith well so as to counter the myths and misunderstandings about it.
“It’s up to the laity to reach out to those who are searching for God,” Cavanagh said. “Reach out to those who are hurting, angry, sad, lonely and despondent to give them hope. The ‘Church’ doesn’t reach out to people, people reach out to people—you and me.”