All this justified euphoria about the papal visit has obscured one small item of good news: the recent conversion of author and journalist Leo McKinstry. In a moving article on September 16, the Belfast-born writer, who was raised a Protestant, relates how he was holidaying in Venice with his wife when he experienced a spiritual awakening.
In a chapel decorated with examples of Renaissance religious art, McKinstry suddenly realised that the poetry and symbolism of Catholic ritual are designed to evoke a spiritual reaction. This led him to the further realisation that “it is Christianity which gave us the moral code that built our great societies” and that it is the Church which is the bulwark defending Christian civilisation against secularism.
McKinstry admits that his conversion “runs counter to the spirit of modern Britain, an aggressively secular, anti-Christian country where the Church is seen as outmoded, reactionary, irrelevant and superstitious”. You can say that again.
He goes on to state that he believes Pope Benedict to be a “man of decency, integrity and great intellectual strength” and that the Catholic “ideal of restraint” has often done more good than all the trendy sex awareness campaigns put together.
It takes some courage to say all this, especially in the cynical bars of Fleet Street and in the face of fellow journalists like Claire Rayner and Polly Toynbee. McKinstry makes it clear he has no time for these “militant atheists who, in the name of tolerance, are utterly intolerant of traditional Christian faith.”
Good for him. I don’t say this in a spirit of triumphalism; what McKinstry says is a matter of history and simple common sense. The new atheists are short on common sense, long on their own version of bigotry. Indeed, McKinstry compares their rants to the sectarian strife he knew all too well from his Belfast youth.
His conversion story is not unlike that of Peter Hitchens (though the latter has not yet swum the Tiber). Hitchens has described how his own moment of awakening from atheism to Christianity took place as he contemplated a scene from hell in an Italian old master painting. Could there be a transcendent meaning to life, after all? Might we be judged after death and held accountable?
It takes a certain openness and humility to ask such questions, and then courage to follow their logic. Who knows – perhaps Richard Dawkins will have his own moment of awakening one day as he gazes, for instance, at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile I must remember to keep praying for Peter’s brother, Christopher, who has throat cancer and who, unlike his fans, is apparently touched by the solicitude of his Christian friends.