"You Have Not Chosen Me, But I Have Chosen You..." | An Interview with Donna Steichen, editor of Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | October 23, 2009
Donna Steichen is a longtime investigative journalist who has written numerous articles in various Catholic publications. She is also the author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press, 1991), and editor of Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church (Ignatius Press, 1999).
Her most recent book, Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard (Ignatius, 2009), contains the inspiring and often surprising stories of men and women who were not drawn to the Church by sound evangelization programs, beautiful buildings and liturgies, or saintly witnesses among the clergy, but were attracted to Catholicism in spite of deficient catechesis, mediocre Masses, and uninspiring leadership.
Steichen recently spoke with Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight about the book and related current events.
Ignatius Insight: How did this collection of conversion stories come about? How did you go about selecting the twenty-three stories in this volume?
Donna Steichen: This has been called the age of the "three verts" in the Church. Well, I kept hearing from reverts and converts wanting to tell me how they came to find themselves in the Church.
Each story was deeply moving. Because of my research on feminism, I decided that all the stories in my 1999 book, Prodigal Daughters, should be those of women reverts. This time, I wanted to focus especially on those giving awesome evidence that in a Catholic conversion, it is Christ who does the choosing.
Ignatius Insight: While each conversion story has unique details and elements, what are some of the essential, common themes and characteristics? What lessons might be learned from those?
Donna Steichen: The unifying theme, of course, is that it is God who chooses. The most striking affirmation is that God does truly forgive the penitent any sin, however scarlet. If we have been properly catechized, we know that truth intellectually, but in personal accounts we see it brought to vivid life.
For me, the most unexpected theme is God's persistence, the way He offers His love again and again, in patient but unremitting courtship of the soul. We see why Francis Thompson rightly calls Him "The Hound of Heaven".
Ignatius Insight: In the Introduction you write, "Some of their accounts are as astonishing as if they had been drawn from a collection of medieval miracle stories." Which accounts astonished or amazed you the most? Why?
Donna Steichen: It is hard to choose the single most memorable account, but certainly Russell Ford's experiences qualify as amazing. First he heard a voice telling him to be patient, but he wasn't patient. In doubt and despair, he tried to hang himself, but the nylon rope broke.
Then he swallowed 90 sleeping pills—enough to kill a horse, according to his doctor—and all that resulted was that he slept for two days. Finally he concluded that he had just better be patient. Another physical marvel was the medically attested, spontaneous healing of Kari Beckman's congenitally deformed reproductive system.
On a spiritual level, marvels can be found in every story: dramatic coincidences that cry out "Divine Providence, " like skeptic Stephanie Block enrolling in a philosophy class for the wrong reasons, and finding herself Alice Von Hildebrand's student.
A recurring element is an experience of God's presence as indescribable, enveloping love, as Roy Schoeman describes so poignantly in his account of meeting Jesus.
Ignatius Insight: What are some ways in which these converts are replanting Christ's vineyard, the Church?
Donna Steichen: Most of us serve God's will by fulfilling our daily responsibilities, doing the work that lies in front of us. Caring for one's family rarely looks spectacular from the outside, but that is the way Christ reaches most human hearts, and rebuilds society one person at a time. An extraordinary example is former Wicca priestess Shannon Counihan, now an oblate in the Norbertine Third Order, raising and home schooling her eight children.
Other converts plunge into society's battles, fighting against the tide of death: Stephen Mosher leading the very effective Population Research Institute against the population-controllers, Austin Ruse using his multiple gifts to guide and support well-meaning UN delegates from Third World countries, and William L. Toffler, battling in the medical world against the forces oflegalized killing.
Some few converts put aside everything else to follow Jesus. Father Sebastian Walshe and Father Augustine Tran, the two priests contributors to Chosen, make the nature of those decisions unforgettably clear in their stories.
Ignatius Insight: Your career as an author and journalist has spanned the post-Vatican II era, and you've written quite a bit about the upheaval and difficulty of those years. What are some of the most significant changes among Catholics and within the Church—either good or ill—that you've witnessed over the past forty-plus years?
Donna Steichen: Readers will find that narrative spelled out pretty clearly in my introduction to Chosen .To be brief, I'll cite liturgy and religious education. Changes in the liturgy as it is usually celebrated have brought about a loss of reverence, an assault on the sense of the sacred, and esthetic degradation.
In my opinion, however, the worst devastation around us has been caused by the abject failure of religious education, all the way from primary catechesis—which virtually ceased to exist—through Catholic "higher education, " which has largely been conducted as if it was intended to destroy belief in the doctrines of the faith. At that task it has been successful. We see the consequences in the large number of non-believers in public life, who continue to declare themselves "devout" Catholics while lobbying and legislating in fierce opposition to the moral teachings of the Church.
On a more positive note, many of the lay Catholics betrayed by ill-advised "experts" awoke to the dismal state of affairs and took steps to preserve the faith. The charismatic movement was a haven that saved thousands from leaving the Church. Participation in the pro-life movement educated participants about the sacredness of life while simultaneously introducing them to Evangelical allies, and teaching them important political skills.
The move to parent-controlled education took shape in a variety of forms: private academies, homegrown catechesis, home schooling, new and reformed colleges, periodicals and publishing houses, until today a parallel educational system exists, doing a vastly more effective job of providing Catholic education for those who are privileged to be part of it.
Ignatius Insight: Looking back at the state of the Catholic Church in the U.S. in 1969 and the years immediately following, what signs of hope do you see today?
Donna Steichen: There are signs of spring all around us. Besides those I have already cited, there is the happy phenomenon of good new bishops, exhibiting an enthusiasm and zeal for the faith that has been extremely rare in the past four decades. It is surprising how many of these are in the Midwest, where the collapse first began in the early 1960s.
Also, I rejoice in the surprising openness of the uncatechized young to the historic faith. They don't show the hostility that was common twenty years ago; many really seem to want to know what Catholicism is all about.
Ignatius Insight: Your 1991 book, Ungodly Rage (Ignatius Press), detailed the collapse of many women's religious orders following the Council. What were the most significant reasons for that collapse? What role did the LCWR play in that collapse?
Donna Steichen: Sisters who saw their communities disintegrate told me that it happened because the faithful nuns were obedient and docile, while those who became radicalized behaved as if the end justified the means. Having been told by purveyors of the spurious "Spirit of Vatican Two" that their former lives of self-sacrifice had been all wrong, they repudiated the ideal of taking up their crosses, and chose instead to seek power and autonomy in the overthrow of the patriarchy.
Observing their tactics, onemight suppose they had beentrained on Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals.
The LCWR was leading the drive.
Ignatius Insight: Do you think the current investigation by the Vatican of women's religious in the U.S. will result in meaningful renewal and change? Why or why not?
Donna Steichen: I don't know what to expect—possibly a document on the Religious Life. That could be helpful for the future. But I believe God has provided the real answer to the crisis in religious life in thriving traditional communities like the Nashville Dominicans, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, and the new Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
Ignatius Insight: What do you think are some of the most important issues and challenges facing Catholics in the United States in the next decade?
Donna Steichen: Living and teaching the faith so that it can transform the toxic culture in which we live.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
The Introduction to Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church | Donna Steichen
A Religion the New York Times Can Love | Donna Steichen
Surprised by Conversion: The Patterns of Faith | Peter E. Martin
Warning: This Is a Dangerous Book | Lorraine V. Murray
From Catholicism to Radical Feminism and Back | An Interview with Lorraine V. Murray
Has The Reformation Ended? | An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll
Evangelicals and Catholics in Conversation | An Interview with Dr. Brad Harper
From Protestantism to Catholicism | Six Journeys to Rome
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An Interview with J. Budziszewski | Ignatius Insight
Thomas Howard on the Meaning of Tradition | IgnatiusInsight.com
Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick | Mark Brumley
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