So in a very real way, liturgy drew me to Latin; Latin drew me to history; and history drew me to Rome. I had begun listening to the Requiem Mass out of a desperate feeling, not any liturgical impulse. I chose to take Latin by a chance, extemporaneous decision. My conversion to a history major was a pragmatic resignation to forces that had been pulling for a long time. But in these moments I can perceive a gradual, steady progression; the gentle guidance of God’s hand.
Perhaps more significantly, Latin led me to the Society. The Society was our university’s classical language society, founded by Dr. G and held together by his gravity. The Society met weekly to read and discuss Latin texts (and occasionally texts in Greek and other ancient languages), gave public readings, and brought in distinguished academic speakers on subjects of classics and history. Dr. G actively recruited members out of his classes; I was drawn immediately. The members appointed me secretary the first time I attended. And suddenly, for the first time since high school, I had found a social and academic home; a sense of purpose and belonging. Over the next half dozen years, my association with the Society and Dr. G would shape me more as a student and as a person than any other influence.
The next semester after my introduction to Latin, Dr. G taught his History of the Christian Church. I was still maturing as a student and as a historian, so I certainly didn’t get as much out of the course as I could have; but what I did get was profound: an historical, scholarly, and rational approach to Early Christianity — one that could coexist with matters of faith, that questioned them academically, but not polemically. Dr. G, the son of a long line of prominent Lutheran ministers, had an equal and unconflicted love for the richness and beauty of the Catholic tradition and the boldness and courage of the Protestant Reformers. As a medieval historian, he held a deep admiration for the Church Fathers and the saints, the world of popes and abbots and monumental cathedrals — this he conveyed to us as students. One student, Hibernius, a philosophy student and atheist, Dr. G’s course made a Roman Catholic. I discovered that semester the first of my many heroes of the faith, the Venerable Bede. I wrote my term paper on Bede’s account of the Synod of Whitby and its import. If listening to the Requiem had planted a seed in me, Dr. G planted a forest that semester.
That summer, having traversed Wheelock’s Latin, I took my first advanced Latin course — momentously, in Church Latin. Over the next weeks, I would immerse myself in the writings of the Church Fathers, medieval historians, hagiographers, and theologians, and come to love them not just in thought, but in letter and in word; not just as history, but as literature and life. My pantheon of heroes grew by leaps and bounds: St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory of Tours, St. Anselm, and others; and of course St. Bede. The process had begun in earnest: I was falling in love with the medieval Church.
Of course, I still had so far to go. This was still seven years ago. I still had so many misconceptions about the modern Catholic Church. I believed it was corrupt, bound up with baseless, man-made accretions that only served to keep man away from God; I believed it was so set in tradition that it could neither move nor change. Raised in the Protestant tradition, I never conceived that the Reformers might have been wrong — or that anything beyond the Protestant tradition might have been right. I had never attended a Mass; it never occurred to me that I might. But I was approaching, surely and steadily, even if I didn’t know where I was going. The coming year would bring me to the threshold of Rome itself.