Outreach to the Homeless

Many Catholic converts speak of coming home. Not me. For years, I felt I had left home and cast my lot with strange, argumentative folks. I missed the incomparable language of Tommy Cranmer (most vacillating of martyrs), Anglican plainsong, and that wonderful hush in an Episcopal church right before people go up to the altar rail. And I detested schmaltzy, sentimental music, rabid exchangers of the peace, and choir robes that looked like seconds from a Baptist supply house. I longed to tell the dear crucifer in the Catholic processions that he was holding the cross in an incorrect form. So what was I doing here?

A certain kind of Episcopalian always becomes a Catholic. I guess I was that kind of Episcopalian – starting with being overly interested in the Anglican nuns at Sewanee, which looks like Oxford and serves as a sort of Vatican for southern Episcopalians. My father was alarmed. I became a Catholic many years later, while working for the National Catholic Register as the token Prot. In the early 1980s, I was exposed to things that should have proven fatal to conversion – deviant nuns first and foremost. But rather than running away, I became fascinated with an institution that could withstand such assaults and aberrations.

It had a raw intensity. But the aesthetics were awful. I lost a little of myself in becoming what my cousins call “Roman.” My family was southern and Episcopalian. I always suspected that Christ would have won a classics prize, played football at Sewanee, and spoken to servants just like Uncle George, a clergyman. My great-great grandparents were married in the church where Patrick Henry uttered his famous either/or. My grandparents were joined in holy matrimony in Natchez, Mississippi by Tennessee Williams’s grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin. Mr. Dakin got roaring drunk after and was neither seen nor heard from for decades. During my vaguely atheistic adolescence, I still could not skip one of the most satisfying events of the Christian year. I once entered St. George’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Tennessee, having been driven through a snowy countryside, to an evening Ash Wednesday service. I pushed open the door and it struck me: This has been going on for 2,000 years.

I know what you’re about to say, without a dollop of our Anglican charm: null and void. Let me assure you: I know, or I would never have crossed the Tiber, a difficult swim in patches. The other bank was dear to me and also so very beautiful. I was fortunate to have been given instruction and received into the Church by a wise and kind Dominican. Father Raymond Smith, O.P. was learned, generous, and a fine teacher. The Dominican friary supplied my aesthetic needs, important to me (then, and, yes, now). Who, I wondered, converts without instruction from a scholar in flowing white robes and a fifteen-decade rosary dangling from his belt?

Why did I stick with it? Well, because it’s true. Don’t laugh, but one of the books I found quite interesting was the Tan volume about the incorruptibles – saints who don’t decay after death. I’m told that they can look awful, but they indicate that sacred history still continues. Episcopalians had history, but not living history. The Catholic Church was history, but more – it still lived, after 2,000 years, in some organic way that was fresh and new and startling.

Nonetheless, the music at St. Matthew’s Cathedral was frequently more sentimental than Lawrence Welk (I applauded when they announced an organist was retiring, but things did not improve). And yet slowly, one becomes not just a Catholic, but a cultural Catholic. One knows the Hail Mary and it feels natural to say it. One goes into small boxes with grilles. The Mass and the confessional turn you into the real thing. I’ve rarely been to confession when I didn’t get a drop of wisdom (in addition to grace). Finally, you are standing in the confessional line at Old St. Mary’s, the Washington church with a Tridentine Mass, singing the words of Immaculate Mary without a hymnal as the choir processes, and you realize: I’ve made it. I belong. I’m here.

Although an arguer myself, I was often irritated by the argumentativeness of my fellow conservative Catholics in my early days – I used to think they were arming themselves with “proofs” against unsuspecting Baptists. They’ll argue papal infallibility with a tree stump. But the arguments are important. After the Episcopal General Convention last summer, a clergy-blogger noted, “I know that this church may head in some directions that may be uncomfortable for me.” Uncomfortable? Fine, in social matters, but you’ve got to fight for truth. Episcopal friends tell me they can live with what is going on in the larger community – not in their parish or diocese. But how can a Christian congregation remain a part of a body that no longer adheres to the tenets of western Christianity? (An Anglican priest once began a sermon, "St. Paul said – and I partly agree with him. . .") And it seeps down to the parishes. I asked a friend why one church never gets male rectors: “They aren’t coming out of the seminary.” The Episcopal clergy has been significantly feminized. The younger women seem quite sweet, a contrast with the early battleaxes. Katherine Jefferts Schorri, leader of the Episcopal Church in America, has called the concept of personal salvation a “western heresy.” Staying in such an ecclesial body is outside my comfort zone.

So, it was worth living through a little bad taste. Even at its tackiest, the Catholic Church has not rejected the Founder. It’s good I found a new home, because my old one no longer exists. It brings me great joy that Pope Benedict XVI is welcoming Anglicans into the Church. Think of it as outreach to the homeless.


Hays is editor of In Character magazine, which is published by the John Templeton Foundation, and coauthor of several books of southern humor.
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  • Ars Artium

    “mysterious ways”
    May those beloved cadences now be integrated into rites within the One Body. How good it is that the beauty and solemnity of meaningful ritual will now again, for however many so choose, be celebrated within the Catholic Church. Such blessings!

  • Willie

    Welcome Aboard
    Beautiful and appropriate to recent historical events. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell must be turning in their graves.

  • Austin Ruse

    Beautiful piece! Really lovely.

  • Joseph

    I always heard it was chic to be Episcopalian. Maybe it was those purple vestments and secular ease. Catholicism is hard, as I’m finding out as I return to the religion of my roots, many times abandoned for philosophical and metaphysical excursions that dead-ended. I’m still trying to run the good race and keep the faith, but doubts creep in daily and I pray for faith and understanding.

    Charlotte’s journey to her new home is encouraging. Thanks for sharing.

  • debby

    Welcome my Sister
    love your story, charlotte. as a sister convert i love to hear these stories! the living faith, the incorruptible GOD Who comes to each one of us and loves us so individually, so personally, so intimately, and yet In Communion, in Family, In Him….He went out and GOT YOU!
    thank you for sharing with all of us…

  • Bradley

    Theologically speaking, Charlotte was “welcomed aboard,” “arrived home,” and “was gotten” by God when she was baptized. That is what the Catechism teaches about our baptism and our permanent bonds with non-Catholic Christians.

  • Mary

    Welcome home, Charlotte!

  • Todd

    Charlotte, you brought an unusual literary device across the Tiber.

    Tommy Cranmer?

    I’m sure Pope Benny or my archbishop, Timmy Dolan, won’t mind if you use the same nickname for Tommy Aquinas.

  • Robert

    I feel the same way
    I feel the same way, coming from Rome to Constantinople, I crossed the Bosphorus and found my way home in the New Rome, HOLY ORTHODOXY.
    I became tired of all the changes made in Rome, the Holy Mass CHANGED, incense NO MORE, it was all too much for me, so I turned to the Holy Orthodox Church where nothing has changed in 1,000 years.

  • Aeneas

    Great article, glad your here now! Its really sad whats happened to the Anglican/Episcopal churches. Next (about the comments), being a convert myself (I was born a Protestant), I have found the catholic faith to be easy, not hard, maybe the morality is tough (but thats human nature), but the philosophy and metaphysical side is not ‘hard” to deal with, lol. Also i have always admired the eastern churches, but to say they have not changed is silly, they have splintered into many different groups.

  • debby

    to Bradley
    Baptism is Birth.
    you want to grow don’t you?
    are you a convert or cradle Catholic? because as a convert i can witness with Charlotte and Brad and others that life lived as a devout Catholic is radically different than as a devout Protestant.
    it’s kind of like the difference between being Invited to a wedding
    Being the BRIDE.

  • rose lewis

    outreach to the homeless
    Thank you for putting into words how I have felt when I had to make the decison to cross the Tiber. There was nowhere else to go. I still use my St.Augustin Prayerbook because it is so beautifully written and at the church we now attend (St.Thomas Aquinas, Dallas, Tx) comes so close to what I was used to in the Angelican Church. One of my first thoughts after we first started to attend the RC church was…this is it…all races, all colors, all nations..universal..wonderful. God bless you.

  • Bradley

    To Debby
    Debby, I rejoice in your witness. You were indeed the bride at baptism. That’s when we die with Christ, with the promise of new life. The grace you received there made your growth possible. It is a mystery than we cannot fathom. A priest once said that a Protestant who becomes a Catholic might better described as completing hisher Christian faith, not converting. That certainly seems more consistent with our Catechism .

  • Tantamount to Heresy

    “An Anglican priest once began a sermon, “St. Paul said – and I partly agree with him. . .”

    Here, as elsewhere, the author scores a merely rhetorical point. As someone who attended a Catholic University and taught at a Catholic high school, among other things, I can assure you such opinions are rampant in the Roman Church as well.

    There is more amiss with Roman Catholicism today than bad taste.

  • debby

    to Bradley-again
    not to keep this going…
    your response reads as something only a cradle Catholic would write. i mean no disrespect to you at all.
    i have been a guest, a bridesmaid & a bride at a wedding.
    i have been a devout in love with Jesus Christ Protestant.
    i AM a devout in love with Jesus Christ Catholic.
    the difference in the level of intimacy cannot be explained.
    the difference doesnt exclude others from the banquet.

  • Catherine Lamey

    What a wonderful reverie. I was thinking about what southern Episcopalians would do. So much of their social life revolves around not being Baptist but also not being Catholic. Maybe there’s hope for more like you to come in. I applaud you for your bravery. I can imagine your reluctance to leave the lovely shore. I’m hoping your influence will result in a rejection of at least some of the Catholic tacky which we all are so tired of.

  • Graham Combs

    Ms. Hays has that gift of good writers — somehow reading the minds of her readers. I keep my father’s old Book of Common Prayer at my bedside, along with a Catholic Prayer Book. Perhaps it’s age, but I miss terribly the beautiful solemnity of Midnight Mass at St. John’s Episcopal Church and kneeling at the Communion rail and recall fondly my years as an altar boy. As an uprooted Southerner, I also appreciate the special place of the Episcopal Church in US history and civic life. Thanks.


    The Poor and Charity
    “Love the poor, and your life will be filled with sunlight, and you will not be frightened at the hour of death.”
    -St Vincent de Paul