Through study and prayer I had come to understand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but I still had not accepted it. I understood it with my head, but I didn’t accept with my heart and my whole being. I have recorded some of the reasons that helped me understand the dogma intellectually at this post.
The process for me to not only understand and accept and believe was more complicated. It involved learning to pray the rosary and allowing my prayer life to be lifted up and boosted by a relationship to the Blessed Virgin Mary. How I came to love the rosary is in one of my archived articles if you want to read more about that you can go here. This opened my life up to the possibility of Mary’s role, and the rosary was a great help in accepting the role of Mary in the work of salvation and in the life and work of the church. I have often advised Evangelicals who are “stuck” on Mary to think the dogmas through, but also to begin praying the rosary. Studying and trying to understand Marian dogmas is like reading a book on rock climbing. Praying the rosary is climbing the cliffs.
However, the real turning point in my acceptance of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception has to do with St Bernadette. In the summer of 1987 I did a hitch hiking tour from England to Jerusalem, and one of the stops on the way was at Never–where St Bernadette’s incorrupt relics are on display. I met a woman there who explained everything about the life of St Bernadette and I had a strange experience at the tomb of Bernadette. I have told the story in more detail here. From that time on, I felt a connection with Bernadette and her story.
A year or so later I was in South Carolina visiting my brother, who had already become a Catholic. He invited me to dinner with his parish priest–a Franciscan named Father Paul who likes beer and fried chicken. So I picked a fight with Fr Paul over the Immaculate Conception. I pulled out the usual arguments against the dogma and he was very patient with me and answered them very well. Then he finally smiled and said, “Well, we believe in the Immaculate Conception because the Pope tells us to. Pass the fried chicken.”
His solid and simple belief and commitment stirred me (and this is a reminder by the way to never think that you have ‘won’ or ‘lost’ a theological debate. You might seem to have lost because the person wasn’t converted, but something you said stuck and bears fruit later) What Fr Paul said did stick, and it sort of stayed with me over the next year or so as I continued to ponder the Catholic faith. By this time I had got to the point where the only thing holding me back from conversion was the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
After returning to England from the USA I went back to France and was wondering through the town of Bayeux in Normandy. The morning was a bit foggy, cold and damp. I went into the cathedral in a contemplative mood and wandered around. The place was empty. Like many of the medieval cathedrals, there were side chapels all around the edge of the building. I saw one dedicated to St Therese and saw a relic of one of her finger bones. Then I knelt to pray in another side chapel. I don’t remember what I said. I think I just prayed a decade of the rosary. As I came out of the cathedral into the town square the sun had burst through. It was bright and warm and I realized that I had gone into the cathedral not believing in the Immaculate Conception and came out believing in it.
Then it dawned on me that the chapel where I had knelt to pray was dedicated to–you guessed it– St Bernadette, to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Somehow, in ways I can only suggest, all these events came together: my study and prayer of course–the rosary, but also my argument with Fr Paul, my visit to Nevers, my later visit to Bayeux. The point I am making is that belief is not simply an intellectual discourse. At the same time the Holy Spirit works in a person’s life. If they are sincerely seeking the truth, then they must pray their theology. The truth must make the long journey from the head to the heart.
That is not all. Eventually I became a Catholic and another saint had an important part to play. I had been intrigued and inspired by the story of St Maximillian K0lbe, and the more I learned about him, and the more I learned about his commitment to the Immaculata, the more her work in the world and the power of her prayers affected my own life. Then, as Providence would have it, I was invited to Poland to be part of a Catholic film festival taking place at Niepolokanov–the friary home of Maximilllian Kolbe. This contact with the Franciscan so devoted to the Immaculate brought me more deeply into my own devotion to her.
There is a little post script. Ten years after coming into the Catholic Church I was called to South Carolina to be ordained as a Catholic priest. As part of the ordination ceremony someone has to stand up and affirm that the candidate has been properly trained and fully understands the Catholic faith. Usually this is a seminary rector or theology professor of the candidate. My progress to ordination, however, was rather different and those preparing the ceremony with me were not sure who should play that role.
“I have an idea.” I said. I got Fr Paul on the phone–who was still a priest in the Diocese of Charleston, and he agreed.
So when I was ordained in St Mary’s Church and the bishop asked who could affirm that I understood the fullness of the Catholic faith, Fr Paul–with whom I had argued over the Immaculate Conception–stood up with a big smile and said, “I do.”
For further reading here is the chapter of my book Mary A Catholic Evangelical Debate in which we discuss the Immaculate Conception.