The Reasons for G.K. Chesterton's Conversion
Interview With Chairman of the Italian Chesterton Society
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By Antonio Gaspari
ROME, MARCH 11, 2010 (Zenit.org).- For Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) Catholicism was always a new force, able to compete with other religions and with the ideologies produced by the modernity of his times.
In his book, "The Catholic Church and Conversion," he spoke about his religious journey, and the reasons that led to his conversion in 1922.
This book has reached countless others, and its Italian translation, "Chiesa Cattolica. Dove tutte le verità si danno appuntamento," has just been republished.
ZENIT spoke with Marco Sermarini, chairman of the Italian Chesterton Society, who wrote the introduction for this new edition of the book.
In his introduction, Sermarini stated that "when Chesterton speaks of religion, he always speaks from reason and from life."
In this interview with ZENIT, the Italian chairman spoke about how Chesterton came to the same conclusions as Pope Benedict XVI, as he discovered the gift of the Catholic faith.
ZENIT: Why have you backed and introduced this book?
Sermarini: It is one of the works that succeeds best in making one understand Chesterton's thought on the religious event, better still, the full adherence of his reason and heart to Catholicism; and above all because it is very useful today for persons who will read it.
A person who has already been given faith as a gift will be enabled to go over the underlying reasons. For one who does not have it but desires it, he will understand how important it is in helping reason.
A person who does not have it and is not even seeking it will find a happy, witty, intelligent as well as a very likable Catholic to the point of giving him the desire to have it.
ZENIT: Is Chesterton still current today? What works and concepts are relevant in our modern day?
Sermarini: I believe I already answered in part. So many times among friends we find ourselves saying that we would like to have a Chesterton around (and I assure you that there isn't currently anyone of his stature, may no one be offended: so intelligent, so likable, so light and serious at the same time, so combatant and distant from the seductions of "right left center"), but then we discover that if we ourselves were more Chestertonian, going out and about to make his thought known, it would already be quite something.
In other words, if we succeeded in making his thought increasingly known, everyone would be greatly helped.
In fact, in a seemingly inexplicable way, we often find while reading his works that there are things in them that are happening today, which he saw and understood a hundred years ago.
The inexplicability is only apparent, because Chesterton had a very acute intelligence illumined by a crystalline faith, and so he succeeded in reading much farther than so many others what was already written in the events he was living and the ideas of his time.
The most representative among his works are "Orthodoxy," "The Everlasting Man," the "saga" of Father Brown and still others.
What absolutely characterizes him is the rigorous use of reason behind the fireworks of his paradoxes and his crackling irony. Stanley Jaki, having read "Orthodoxy" and, in particular, the chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" (on the morality of fables), said that it was absolutely the most sound way of using reason.
ZENIT: What were the reasons for his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism? How many of these reasons are still valid? Could other Anglicans enter the Catholic Church following Chesterton's path?
Sermarini: The reasons for his conversion can be read in "Orthodoxy," in his "Autobiography" and in the book that I have had the joy of presenting.
Chesterton was baptized an Anglican, but the family adhered to the Unitarian faith. Later on he abandoned himself to a sort of skepticism that lead him, to frequent esoteric environments and the cultural climate dictated by decadence, bordering on the most insane ideas.
After a sort of mystical experience described in a letter to his very dear friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley (where he affirmed that "it is embarrassing to speak with God face to face as one speaks to a friend"), Chesterton understood the immense value of life, no matter what its "quality" or "level," and from this was born the gratitude that he made the task and vocation of his life.
He said in his early diary that he wished to spend the rest of his life thanking God for everything (something he did in fact do).
First he returned to the Anglican Church thanks to his wife, Frances Blogg, who was a sincere member of the faithful, as well as thanks to some particularly significant pastoral figures. Subsequently, thanks to his frequentation with his lifetime friend Hilaire Belloc and with Father John O'Connor (who inspired the Father Brown stories), he increasingly understood Catholicism and began to defend it with his works. "Orthodoxy" is the diamond point of his production in this vein.
I always say that to include him in the program of seminaries and Catholic universities as a subject of study could only do great good.
For years he was considered a Catholic although he was still not so, so much so that the news of his conversion in 1922 caught many by surprise and created not a few who "kept their distance," not least of whom was George Bernard Shaw who said to him: "No, Gilbert, now you are going too far."
Catholicism was for him something he had sought for a long time, as one who believes he has found an exotic land and instead discovers his dear old homeland.
Catholicism was the fullness of Christianity for Chesterton, and this is the still timely reason that anyone can adopt in taking a similar way as Gilbert's.
ZENIT: Who are the Unitarians and why is their denial of the divinity of Christ so widespread even in environments close to the Catholic Church?
Sermarini: As a youth Chesterton frequented the Unitarian church, following his father and mother. The Unitarians preach a sort of Christianity deprived of the "unacceptable scandal" of the divinity of Christ: made up of friendship, concord and peace but removed from their true authentic source.
Today it seems to be a heresy that has become fashionable, an accomplice of the watering down in addresses of men of the Church of the sound doctrine (which Chesterton in "Orthodoxy" saw synthesized in the Apostles' Creed) to a sort of civil morality of a very high order, which makes one understand why Chestertonian common sense is no longer at home in certain environments while so many distorted ideas pass with facility, such as euthanasia, eugenics, free choices in the so-called sexual orientation, and so much intolerance towards true Catholicism.
ZENIT: In what ways can Chesterton help in the reinforcement of the Christian faith?
Sermarini: Chesterton was integrally Catholic, intelligently Catholic, cordially Catholic, joyfully Catholic. Who better than he could help us?
Among friends we often say that Chesterton could be considered the St. Thomas Aquinas of the 20th and 21st centuries.
He was good and very joyful and loved everyone, even his cultural adversaries (it suffices to observe his sincere friendship with Shaw, Wells and so many other personalities very distant from him culturally).
ZENIT: There are people in Great Britain who are organizing themselves to request the beatification of Chesterton. What do you think? Is your society thinking of promoting initiatives to support such a beatification?
Sermarini: For some time there has been talk in the Anglo-Saxon world of the "sanctity of Chesterton:" there are so many indications that make one think that he had lived the Catholic faith in an exemplary way, suffice it only to list the personalities who owe to him in turn their faith, acquired after reading his works: Sir Alec Guinness, Clive Staples Lewis, Joseph Pearce and so many others.
Many of us owe so much to Chesterton, for whom a prayer is already being circulated to ask the Lord to manifest his glory in Gilbert, who was not only a great intellectual, but was above all an extraordinarily good man, with the innocent heart of a child. Whoever wishes can find the prayer [in Italian] on our blog blog and in that of the English Chesterton Society (on the latter translated into several languages).
We do not wish to anticipate the judgment of the Church, but for us he is already a great friend from now, through the mystery of the Communion of Saints.
Moreover, soon a booklet of prayers [in Italian] will come out commented with some quotations of Chesterton, "Le preghiere dell'Uomo Vivo" [The Prayer of the Living Man], part of the Faith and Culture series.
ZENIT: In September Pope Benedict XVI will go to Great Britain. In what way could the life and works of Chesterton be able to help his work of new evangelization?
Sermarini: Pope Benedict XVI very often makes Chestertonian quips (once he even quoted him, though without naming him), and he has in common with Chesterton the idea of friendship between faith and reason and that of considering the Catholic faith as the most fascinating of adventures.
Great Britain has great need of Chesterton: It must rediscover common sense, love for its true roots, its original joy.
Chesterton could be one of the most advanced diamond points of a return of the English to the Catholic faith, together with the Venerable John Henry Newman, Cardinal [Henry] Manning and so many others who have taken and continue to take Gilbert's path.
[Translation by ZENIT]