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Former Queen's chaplain Gavin Ashenden: Why I'm converting to Catholicism

When Gavin Ashenden announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism he accused the Church of England of pursuing a "progressive agenda". But his decision to "return home to Rome" was not limited to his frustration with the CofE. Here, he explains how he became convinced that many reported Marian apparitions really did take place 

There are a wide variety of ways of explaining why anyone becomes a Roman Catholic. But perhaps the most important one is the discovery that despite all the mud thrown at the Church by so many people for so much of the time, what they claim is actually, rather surprisingly true.

There are different ways into the truth. One of my ways in was discovering Catholic claims that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, kept on appearing to the Church; and realising these claims were reasonable. And if true, it meant Mary was not only real today, but an important element in the Kingdom of heaven’s strategy.

Theologically I could see how this might be at least possible given how both Moses and Elijah appeared to the disciples on the Mount of transfiguration. But why would she? How would one know it was her and not some spoof, deception or self-delusion? I had been lecturing in the Psychology of Religion at a red brick university for some time and was well aware of issues arising from unusual phenomena and the need to test them to destruction.

When I discovered the full range of Marian interventions I was astonished

I decided to examine an apparition that happened among a group of children in Northern Spain in a village called Garabandal in 1963 (when I was 9 and living in London). I chose this apparition because the children were filmed by a video camera. I was scrutinising the rather odd footage when a friend of mine, a postgrad psychologist walked into my office and asked what on earth I was watching. I explained what it purported to be, and how sceptical I was. “Well,” she said, "Speaking as a child psychologist I would say that whatever is claimed to be going on, it’s ‘real’. You can never fake ecstasy in children that age.”

What was Mary saying to the children? She was teaching them how to cross themselves, pray the rosary and instructing them to give a message to the Church; “tell the adults to repent more deeply, pray more truly and follow my Son with more devotion.”

I started looking into the history of Marian apparitions. I had no idea they had been going on for so long, and were so widespread (Le Puy France in 70 AD, Guadalupe Mexico in 1531, Akito Japan in 1970, Zeitoun Cairo in 1968 to give just some examples). One of the earliest was in Syria. Gregory of Nyssa wrote about an experience of Mary that had taken place in 231 AD. He was demoralised at the prospect of the evangelism he was called to do, and suddenly Mary appeared with the Apostle John, encouraging him to get on with it.

I remembered that a famous translator of the New Testament, JB Phillips, suffering badly from depression and very stuck, had an experience of CS Lewis appearing to him. As it happened, although he didn’t know it at the time, Lewis had just died. Lewis, appearing to be in the most excellent state of health, simply beamed at him, radiating warmth and encouragement. So, not just Mary then, but Moses, Elijah and even CS Lewis.

When I discovered the full range of Marian interventions I was astonished, and asked “why didn’t I ever know any of this”?

My supernatural experience

The rubber hit the road for me when in 2008 I found myself with a surprising and utterly awful experience of evil.

Enough to say that for three nights from 1am-5am I seemed to be attacked by hell. Despair, accusation, sulphur, burning. My wife understandably thought I was having a nervous breakdown. Since nervous breakdowns don’t start at 1am and end at 5am, I thought not. So what was it?

After the first night I turned to a Catholic exorcist I knew well for some desperately needed advice. “Pray the rosary” he advised. I expected something a bit more helpful or potent. But as (for the first time) I did, the phenomena diminished slowly in power, and by the third night were replaced by a strong scent of roses. My wife thought I had left the bedroom windows open. They were closed. As many will already be aware, down the ages when Mary has intervened, the smell of roses has often accompanied it. That particular assault from the other side never returned.

Investigating claimed miracles 

One of the next discoveries that affected me deeply were the Eucharistic miracles. There are very many, but the most recent are the most interesting because of the science.

On 19 August 1996, a host was found on the floor in a Catholic Parish in Buenos Aires after mass, and as the custom is, was put into a glass of water to dissolve. Instead of dissolving, it bled. The bishop (who became Pope Francis) ordered that it be kept in a tabernacle and watched. It was later sent to a laboratory in the States without any explanation of what it was; just asking, please examine this and tell us what it is.

Dr Frederick Zugibe an expert in cardiology and forensics (who has since also become a Catholic) ran some tests and announced that the specimen was heart muscle, from the myocardium. Whoever the patient was, they had suffered greatly, and the body the specimen had come from had experienced deep trauma.

In my judgment, it was looking like the Catholic Church had been right all along about Mary, and about the Mass.

I had begun to read a group of early Christian writers who came just one generation after the apostles. The Eucharist they described, (the medicine of immortality) the words of worship, the structure of the Church, it was all ‘Catholic.’ Like Newman and Chesterton, I was hovering on the brink of being convinced.

The constant compromising of the Anglican Church over faithfulness to the Gospels, and the surprising discovery that what the Catholic Church taught was true, would lead me to the point where I too crossed the Tiber, healed the schism and returned home to Rome.

Gavin Ashenden has worked as a Vicar, University Chaplain and lecturer, BBC broadcaster, author and newspaper columnist. He writes a regular column for the Jersey Evening Post and lives between Shropshire and Normandy. He recently converted to Roman Catholicism and blogs at ashenden.org 

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