In our desire for justice, to be more holy, or to bring about the conversion of others, how do we respond when the results we desire are slow in coming? Are we patient, or do we act recklessly and hope for immediate results?
Often when we think of patience, we think of how much we lack it or how we struggle to be more patient. Typically, we do not think of patience as having anything to do with accepting and enduring the reality of our fallen world and in the “not yet.” But for Pope Francis, that is precisely the purpose of patience.
Reflecting recently on a quote from Romano Guardini, Francis recalled “that patience is God’s way of responding to our weakness and giving us the time we need to change.” We can hope precisely because the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ, “shows us the merciful Father who keeps calling us, even to our final hour.”
Recognizing this is how we learn how to become patient ourselves. Because “time is greater than space,” one of the guiding principles for his pastoral program in Evangelii Gaudium, we are able “to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans” (EG 223). This sensibility is also reflected in the gradual approach of Amoris Laetitia.
We live in the great tension between the desire to act right now to change things for the better, and the realization that the fullness of time is governed by God’s patient love. Patience ought to guide us to move in the direction God calls, confident that he will bring our good works to fruition. Francis recalls for us the parable of the wheat and the weeds: if God can allow the weeds to grow up with the wheat for a while, until the harvest, then we may need to accustom ourselves to the weeds, as well.
Especially in serious matters, we must discern whether our hearts are acting out of Christian urgency or an impatient desire to root out the weeds. In the same recent homily, Pope Francis explained:
There are times when conflicts arise and no immediate solution can be expected, nor should hasty judgements be made. Time is required to step back, to preserve peace and to wait for a better time to resolve situations in charity and in truth. Let us not allow ourselves to be flustered by tempests…. We will never be able to discern well, to see the truth, if our hearts are agitated and impatient. Never.
It is perhaps in evangelization that the great tension between urgency to act with God and human impatience to see God’s action revealed is most apparent.
Everyone seems to love a good conversion story. We particularly enjoy the blinded-by-the-light kinds of stories, such as St. Paul’s, where Christ abruptly interrupts and reorients life. Or we like the stories that show us exactly what needs to be done in order to win a soul for Christ. Then we can design programs of evangelization to achieve the same result.
Regis Martin recently told such a conversion story for Crisis in “When Salvation is a Phone Call Away.” Martin recounted a brief sketch of the conversion of Heywood Broun, an early-20th century American journalist who was received into the Catholic Church in 1939. Broun wasn’t just any journalist—he was an influential syndicated columnist with known left-leaning views who saw the journalist’s role as one of promoting social and political change. He was a champion of unions and opponent of fascism. He was also an agnostic.
Though it is hard to draw historical analogies, he might be described as something like an early-20th century version of Keith Olbermann, an outspoken liberal who began his career as a sports journalist and later became a political commentator. After Broun’s conversion, some suggested that the acerbic and larger-than-life writer (in both physique and opinions) might be an American G.K. Chesterton.
In his Crisis article, Martin described Broun’s conversion as one of Venerable Fulton Sheen’s many evangelistic “conquests,” suggesting the famous American cleric won Broun over to the Catholic faith with a phone call: “One day, Sheen simply called him up and said he wanted to meet with him. ‘About what?’ demanded Broun, in his usual gruff manner. ‘Your soul,’ Sheen replied.” In one meeting, Martin says, Broun “unburdened his entire life,” and after a couple of catechetical sessions was baptized and confirmed in short order. Broun would die before the end of the year.
The problem with this short, tidy conversion story is that it’s untrue.
The full story of Broun’s conversion—like many human stories of conversion—is more nuanced. In an obituary published in December 1939, the Catholic newspaper The Advocate characterized Broun’s conversion as “no spasmodic, sudden thing. His entering the Church, as he said himself, was not a matter of the moment, but had been carefully and deliberately considered.”
Although popular at the time, Broun’s legacy has not left an impression on younger generations. Martin suggests, “It’s not likely that anyone will have heard of Heywood Broun.” Fortunately, this is not the case. In her research for her upcoming book, Dawn Eden Goldstein became familiar with Broun via the priest who played a pivotal role in his conversion process, one that began long before his meeting with Sheen. After his death, multiple Catholic and secular reports would attribute Broun’s slow conversion as being “sealed in the talk with his former journalist friend, Fr. Edward Patrick Dowling, S.J.” A study of Broun’s life and writings reveals the story of a man who was seeking faith with the help of companionship and encouragement from different witnesses over a long period of time. It was in this process that the grace of conversion began to work.
Broun’s accompaniment in faith began with his 1935 marriage to his Catholic wife, Connie Dooley, whom he witnessed praying regularly, including the Rosary, but who never proselytized him. It was she who reportedly encouraged a line of conversation about faith with friends which would later result in that phone call from Sheen, according to Broun’s biography by Dale Kramer published in 1949. During a visit with his Catholic friend Hollywood McCosker in January 1939, Broun expressed serious interest in “studying the catechism” with a priest. McCosker then offered to connect Broun with Sheen—something unbelievable to Broun, given Sheen’s growing notoriety—and held up his end of the bargain, even coordinating with Sheen so that his first conversation with Broun “would be under the best of circumstances.”
His friendship with Fr. Dowling, however, began years before he entered the Church. Broun met Dowling, a fellow journalist and convert to Catholicism, in 1937. Dowling became a trusted friend due in no small part to his similar background and convictions on labor and other issues. And his moral authority was credible to Broun because of his activism for public housing in St. Louis’s slums, among other social concerns.
In early February 1939, Broun had a long, in-person conversation with Fr. Dowling in St. Louis, which would prove pivotal to his conversion. Broun himself wrote about this meeting in a column in March: “Quite recently I talked to a newspaper friend of mine who is now a priest. I said to him that I wanted to know if there was anything in Catholicism which stood in the way of any person who believed in political and economic progressivism.” The reply he received was reassuring and communicated the radical nature of Catholic social teaching’s vision for political life: “You like to call yourself a radical,” Fr. Dowling began, “but the doctrines of the Church to which I belong imply so many deep changes in human relationship that when they are accomplished—and they will be—your notions will be nothing more than an outmoded pink liberalism.’”
This clarification—that the Church’s social teaching took up Broun’s motivating concerns of justice and solidarity while transcending the political categories to which he thought they must be tied—cleared the last hurdle standing in the way of Broun’s leap to Catholicism. When Sheen called, he was ready to talk.
And what he brought to those conversations with Sheen was not, as Regis Martin indicated, only a concern for his own soul. In Broun’s own words: “I sorely needed the companionship of Jesus Christ; that was the most compelling cause of my conversion.” He had other motives, too: “‘I love my fellow man,’ he told Monsignor Sheen, and particularly the down and out, the socially disinherited, and the economically dispossessed.’”
It was Broun’s own “radicalism” that in part was responsible for his coming home.
It was not only the accompaniment of others that was instrumental in drawing him to companionship with Christ, it was the power of witness. In early 1939 while covering housing projects being built in the slums of San Antonio, Broun became acquainted with an Italian-born priest, Fr. Carlo Tranchese. At the Jesuit-run Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, Fr. Tranchese had been demanding public housing on behalf of his parishioners and had made enemies, including some who threatened his life. Broun was “impressed by the fight being made by Father Tranchese for better housing” in the face of danger In addition to admiration for these two priests, Broun also was drawn to Catholicism by the witness of the new Holy Father, Pius XII, a known opponent of the fascist wave rising in Europe.
At the same time, counter-witnesses risked standing in the way of Broun’s conversion. The words and actions of some Catholics made his intellectual journey towards the Church a difficult one. Among these were the disciples of Fr. Charles Coughlin, a celebrity priest whose popular radio show boosted anti-Semitism and fascism on American airwaves in the 1930s. In January 1939, Broun covered some of Coughlin’s followers who protested outside a radio station that took him off the air due to his anti-Semitic statements. The protestors carried signs with slogans like, “CHRISTIANS AWAKE.” When some of the protesters realized it was Broun asking them questions, they turned on the journalist, and began chanting, “Down with Heywood Broun! Get him, he’s a dirty red,” according to a newspaper report at the time.
After he entered the Church, these skeptics did not welcome him. When Broun died in December 1939 of pneumonia, Fr. Dowling said “it was others’ unkindness that killed him.” Shocked by the alienation he suffered from former colleagues and left-wing friends, Broun also found himself isolated from “sterilely orthodox and orthodoxically sterile Catholics” who remained suspicious of him.
The details we glean from conversion stories reveal our own understanding of the workings of grace in human life. The purpose of Martin’s retelling of Broun’s conversion in Crisis wasn’t to engage with his story as much as it was to ask why Sheen’s technique is not being repeated today by Cardinal Wilton Gregory and other bishops in their interactions with the American president who is in need of his own conversion.
In Martin’s telling, the lesson we should take from the story of Broun’s conversion “by” Sheen is the urgency with which Sheen seemed to act. “Sheen himself felt a great urgency to reach out—to try and win this man’s soul for God.” This zeal, Martin argues, must be demonstrated by bishops who—if they really take their task as seriously as Sheen did—will engage directly and provocatively with those in need of conversion.
For Martin, they really have no excuse not to: the Sheen approach really costs little time and effort, and has no drawbacks: “What would it cost for, say, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, D.C. to make that call? … An hour of his day maybe?” But Martin assumes that they have not taken any steps to bring about President Biden’s conversion, and will not.
But is this patient urgency in action, or is this human impatience disguised as zeal?
Pope Francis’s approach to such intervention—and perhaps Fr. Dowling’s as well—is no less zealous but allows for different circumstances to call for different approaches. This again mirrors the patience of God, who has no single way of drawing us to Himself. Pope Francis spoke of this in a morning meditation early in his papacy, reminding us, “When the Lord intervenes he does not always do so in the same way. There is no ‘set protocol’ for God’s action in our life… it does not exist. He intervenes in one way, later in another but he always intervenes. The Lord always chooses his way to enter into our lives.”
Francis repeatedly stresses that God “remains patient for many years, always holding out the possibility of conversion.” Patience in this sense is the ability to know our human limits and to accept them while paying attention to the ways God invites us to act.
The impatient person who is obsessed with the urgency of today’s needs, refuses to accept these limits. Francis said in 2018: “There are many limits in life, but impatience doesn’t want them, it ignores them because it doesn’t know how to dialogue with limits. There is some kind of fantasy of omnipotence.” For Francis it is only by accepting the reality of life, including its limits, that we can cooperate with God’s plan.
When we accept the tension and allow for gradual change, wonderful things can happen. During his conversion journey, Broun wrote a column praising the election of Pius XII as a bulwark against nationalism in Europe. Demonstrating his respect for and understanding of Catholic social teaching in March of 1939—likely because he was already receiving formation under Sheen prior to his own entrance into the Church later that year—he wrote:
In its own tradition and structure the Catholic Church represents an eternal barrier to narrow nationalism. It is committed to the great vision of universal fellowship and fraternity brought into the world by Jesus. . . . Not even the most ardent Catholic would say that the intentions of Jesus have been fulfilled to the hilt. But it is a way of life which has endured for centuries. It will be with us when such a word as ‘Fascism’ is forgotten.
And perhaps that enduring vision is what can be accomplished when we begin processes that evangelize rather than act impatiently to try to complete them. As Pope Francis said to the Brazilian bishops in Rio in 2013: “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church also has to learn how to wait.”
With gratitude to Dawn Eden Goldstein for providing insights and original sources relating to the conversion of Heywood Broun and the role of Fr. Dowling.
Photo Credit: Header image – Heywood Broun, public domain. Fr. Edward Patrick Dowling, S.J., circa 1940, provided by Dawn Eden Goldstein. Clipping, St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri), 20 May 1939.