50 Catholic Converts: Notable Churchgoers of the Last Century

COMMENTARY

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The Church around the world welcomes thousands of new Catholics at the Easter vigil.

On average, more than 100,000 adults enter the Church in the United States every year. They come from every walk of life and every age group. Some arrive in the Church after many years of personal struggle, and some come at the very end of their lives. Others are moved to become Catholic because of the examples of saints, priests, religious, and exemplary laypeople and family members who give witness to Christ Jesus.

In the end, of course, they reach the same conclusion as another famous convert, Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman: “Regarding Christianity, 10,000 difficulties do not make one doubt.”

And to be sure, many converts are encouraged in their own journeys to Catholicism by the models of more famous converts.

Movie stars, poets, novelists, musicians, philosophers, scientists and even queens were convinced in their consciences that they must become Catholic.

They were sinners (as are we all), and, as with such a diverse and interesting group, they have very different temperaments, personalities and foibles.

The dazzling variety is itself a microcosm of the many different people who enter the Church every year — and also a helpful reminder that everyone is called by Christ and that no past, however dark and troubled, makes us unwelcome to God’s loving embrace of mercy and forgiveness.  

Here are a few of the most notable converts over the last century:

Mortimer Adler (1902-2001): American philosopher and educator, he discovered St. Thomas Aquinas in his 20s and became a figure in the Neo-Thomist Movement.

Cardinal Francis Arinze (b. 1932): Nigerian convert baptized at the age of 9 by Blessed Cyprian Tansi. He became the youngest bishop in the world at the age of 32 and was later named a cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. 

Francis Beckwith (b. 1960): A philosopher and theologian, he was elected president of the Evangelical Theological Society but converted to Catholicism in 2007.

Tony Blair (b. 1953): British Labour Party leader and prime minister from 1997 to 2007, he was the youngest prime minister since 1812. His wife, Cherie, is also Catholic.

Cherry Boone (b. 1954): Daughter of the famous evangelical singer Pat Boone. Married in 1975 to the writer Dan O’Neill, she and her husband both converted to Catholicism.

Robert Bork (1927-2012): Conservative American judge and jurist best known for the vicious political fight that blocked his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. He and his wife converted to Catholicism in 2003.

Louis Bouyer (1913-2004): French theologian and one of the founding members of both the International Theological Commission and the international theological review Communio.

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012): One of the most renowned American jazz musicians. He converted in 1980 and was commissioned to compose the Mass to Hope.

Tim Conway (b. 1933): American comedian best known for his role on the television programs McHale’s Navy and The Carol Burnett Show.

Gary Cooper (1901-1961): American actor who earned three Academy Awards, including “Best Actor” for Sergeant York and High Noon. He had a powerful meeting with Pope Pius XII in 1953 and formally entered the Church in 1959.

Frederick Copleston (1907-1994): English Jesuit and historian of philosophy, he converted to the Church at the age of 18 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1930.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980): Writer, social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin. Her cause for canonization was opened in New York in 2000.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985): A Canadian social-justice leader and founder of the Madonna House apostolate. A convert from the Russian Orthodox Church, her cause for canonization was opened in 2000.

Diana Dors (1931-1984): English actress considered a classic “blonde bombshell” in movies.

Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008): American Jesuit, theologian and cardinal, the son of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

Newt Gingrich (b. 1943): Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999 as well as an author, presidential candidate and historian.

Rumer Godden (1907-1998): English novelist best known as the author of the novels Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede.

Graham Greene (1904-1991): British writer best known in Catholic circles for his novels Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair.

Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000): Academy Award-winning British actor who won the Oscar for “Best Actor” in 1957 for The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Scott Hahn (b. 1957): Biblical theologian, apologist and prolific writer and speaker. His wife, Kimberly, is also a convert.

Susan Hayward (1917-1975): Academy Award-winning actress who won the Oscar for her portrayal of death-row inmate Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! (1958).

Elisabeth Hesselblad (1870-1957): A Swedish convert from Lutheranism and founder of the Bridgettine Sisters, she was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.

Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977): A German philosopher and theologian honored by numerous popes for his immense contributions to Catholic thought.

Katharine, Duchess of Kent (b. 1933): The wife of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (a grandson of King George V and Queen Mary and first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II), the first member of the royal family to convert since 1701.

Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918): American poet, journalist and editor, best known for his short poem Trees (1913). He was killed in 1918 at the end of World War I.

Russell Kirk (1918-1994): American political theorist and one of the most influential figures in the American conservative movement.

Dean Koontz (b. 1945): Prolific novelist who has sold more than 450 million copies of his books.

Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987): The first American woman appointed to a major ambassadorial post abroad, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1943 to 1947, writer and playwright.

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007): Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, a cardinal from 1983 and a promoter of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He converted from Judaism.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973): French philosopher, playwright and Christian existentialist best known for his work The Mystery of Being.

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973): French philosopher, author of more than 60 books and one of the key figures in the revival of Thomism in modern times. He and his wife, Raïssa, converted to Catholicism in 1906.

Norma McCorvey (1947-2017): The plaintiff in the infamous 1973 lawsuit Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion who subsequently became pro-life.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980): Canadian professor, philosopher and media theorist best known for coining the expressions “the medium is the message” and “global village.”

Thomas Merton (1915-1968): American Trappist monk and priest as well as a poet, social activist and one of the most famous and controversial Catholic converts of the 20th century.

Vittorio Messori (b. 1941): Italian journalist best known for his book-length interviews The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (1985) and Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II (1994).

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990): British journalist, satirist and author. He became a Catholic in 1982 with his wife, Kitty, largely through the influence of St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011): American medical doctor and a founding member of NARAL Pro-Choice America who joined the pro-life movement in the 1970s.

Queen Nazli (1894-1978): Queen of Egypt from 1919 to 1936 as the second wife of King Fuad and mother of King Farouk of Egypt. She and her daughter, Fathia, converted from Islam in 1950.

Patricia Neal (1926-2010): Academy Award-winning actress for her performance in Hud (1963). She converted to Catholicism a few months before her death.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009): Former Lutheran pastor, writer, theologian and founder and editor of the journal First Things.

Robert Novak (1931-2009): American journalist, columnist and conservative political commentator.

Joseph Pearce (b. 1961): English writer and literary biographer.

Walker Percy (1916 -1990): American writer beloved for his novels that confront man’s struggle with modernity.

Knute Rockne (1888-1931): Norwegian-born coach of the Notre Dame football team from 1918 to 1930 and considered one of the greatest coaches in sports history.

Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967): Swiss physician, spiritual writer and mystic who authored more than 60 books of spirituality and theology.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) (1891-1942): German-Jewish philosopher and Discalced Carmelite nun who died at Auschwitz. She was canonized by St. John Paul II in 1998.

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949): Norwegian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966): English writer famed for his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945).

John Wayne (1907-1979): Academy Award-winning actor beloved for his roles in westerns and war movies.

Israel Zolli (1881-1956): Italian Jewish scholar and the chief rabbi in Rome from 1940 to 1945. A friend of Pope Pius XII, he converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1945.

 

Matthew Bunson is a senior editor with the Register

and senior contributor to EWTN News.