Disciple of Secularism Turns Catholic, Part 1

Vittorio Messori Speaks About His Own Conversion

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By Nicolas de Cardenas

ROME, NOV. 12, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In his latest book, the author who interviewed many people, including the last two Popes, himself becomes the subject of an inquiry, leading him to reveal his story of conversion.

Vittorio Messori, author of “The Jesus Hypothesis” (1976), is the first journalist in history to publish a book-length interview with a Pope, the best-selling “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (1994).

He also published “The Ratzinger Report” (1987), based on an interview with then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In this interview with ZENIT, Messori talks about his latest book, “Por qué creo” [Why I Believe] (published by LibrosLibres in Spain), in which he is interviewed by Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

ZENIT: At the beginning of the book, you seem very reticent to open your soul, although you have already accepted the challenge of addressing Tornielli’s questions. Was it as hard as it seems for you to take on the systematic recounting of your conversion experience?

Messori: I have waited many years before responding. First, because I have written 23 books, all of religious research, but I always refused to recount my conversion. 

My readers know that in my life there is a before and after. They know I wasn’t born a Catholic and that I had a very anti-clerical and anti-religious education.

And they know that now I am a “Papist,” an orthodox Catholic, and they are very curious to know how this happened. Why? What happened in my life? 

I have passed from being anti-clerical to being a rigorous Catholic in thought, though not so much in life. Because I don’t present myself as devout. I am like everyone else, a sinner who does many inconsistent things.

I have been very guarded about my inner life; I have not had the courage to talk about it. 

Actually, conversion is a mystery and it is very difficult to talk about a mystery. My work is in words, I am a journalist and writer, I work with words. But it was very difficult for me to find the necessary words to talk about this mystery.

Finally, I decided to respond not only to the request of readers, but to that of this journalist, this colleague, Andrea Tornielli, who in my opinion is the best Italian Vatican expert, in addition to being a great journalist and writer. 

Now I have decided for the first time to talk about it because my life is divided into two stages, passing from unbelief to faith.

ZENIT: The Spanish edition of the book “Why I Believe” has more than 350 pages, yet even with such an impressive exposition of your experience, a doubt remains. Can one truly encompass a person’s mystical experience with the printed word? Is it possible to verbalize all the intellectual and moral change that a convert experiences?

Messori: This is one of the reasons why I always said no. I repeat, it is difficult to talk about mystery. 

I’m not a mystic, I am not a visionary. I have always been a very pragmatic person, very concrete, very rational. However, there was a period in my life, of some two months in the summer, I don’t know why, when I discovered a new dimension in which truth, which I thought did not exist in capital letters, became evident to me. It is in the Gospel.

I was a good student, I loved to study and I prepared myself not only to be a journalist but also a university professor. I had read very many books, but I had not read that small book that is the Gospel. I did not suspect that the Truth was in it.

Now I have continued to use my reason as before, but it is open to mystery. My teachers taught me to use pure reason, but I have discovered that by using it, at the end of reason one always comes to mystery. 

In all my books I have sought to reason. I have not worked at preaching, spirituality, homilies. I try to help the reader to reason on faith and, at the end, to bet on the veracity of faith.

ZENIT: Although your conversion seems to be linked also to an “extraordinary event,” you do not refer to it as a process of rational argumentation, or the seeking of objective reasons and historical principles for the credibility of the Church. What is your opinion of apologetics based not so much on the rationality of the faith as on individual experiences?

Messori: There is no contradiction between the two. The truth of the faith is understood by reasoning and living. 

It is 40 years since my “fracture” and in that time I have reasoned and studied a lot, but above all I have lived and have found that the fruit of my reasoning made sense in a complete life. 

The Gospel recounts that the disciples asked Jesus who he was. He did not give them sermons, did not offer them reasoning, he said to them: “Come, and follow me.” Come with me, live with me and you will see that I am the Messiah. 

Christianity is not a philosophy, it isn’t an ideology. It is a meeting of two persons.

ZENIT: In the book one perceives a certain regret because of the abandonment of your former teachers, those who introduced you to the path of agnosticism. Did you feel betrayed by those who defended reason as the only possible basis, when that same rationality is the pivot of your coming to the faith?

Messori: For me faith was a surprise. I was not seeking it, I was fine. I had no religious worry. 

I was satisfied with the secular and rationalist culture of my teachers. I did not wish to be a Catholic. The faith did not resolve the problems of life. On the contrary, it complicated life, because I come from a non-believing family. 

I studied in a school that was more than secular, it was based in laicism. I prepared myself to be a journalist; I always had a great vocation, but [as] a journalist of political, social and economic affairs. 

In my last year of university I had my life planned and I had to change the plan completely. My parents thought I had gone mad and my professors were afflicted and disappointed. They thought that “my thing” was related to a nervous depression. 

How can a disciple of our secularism become a Catholic! It was very hard, because one can think at first that faith resolves all problems.

Of course I am very happy and glad to have problems, but in fact it was quite a rupture. In any case, I have had the good fortune to work for important newspapers such as “La Stampa,” FIAT’s newspaper, and also with “Il Corriere della Sera,” always, however, writing about religious affairs, which is the opposite of what I planned in the beginning. In the end I found my place, but it was hard to change my plans completely.

[Translation by ZENIT] [Part 2 of this interview, with a look at current events and the rationality of faith, will be published Friday.]
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