An all-American, champion-of-the-common-man movie star, the horseback-riding, gun-slinging Gary Cooper is another unlikely convert to Catholicism. While he didn’t convert until much later in his life, it was an audience with Pope Pius XII at a distraught, complicated time in his life that sealed the deal on his religious discernment.
Born in Helena, Montana in 1901, Gary Cooper had a somewhat inauspicious rise to national acclaim. When he was fifteen, he injured his hip in a car accident — his doctor sent him to his parents’ Montana ranch, where he was encouraged to horseback-ride as therapy. This misguided advice gave him a characteristic stiff walk and iconic, slightly-angled riding style that ended up being extremely beneficial for his career, if not his joint health.
As a young man, Cooper’s parents left Montana and moved to Los Angeles; they encouraged him to join them, suggesting that he nurture his interest in painting, drawing, and other fine arts in Southern California. This he did, where he began working as a stunt rider (for $10 per day) at several Hollywood movie studios to finance his art education. Though his riding skills gave him steady employment on Western film sets, Cooper was a horseman at heart and hated to see the dangerous stunts that often injured both horses and riders.
He loved the screen, though, and the energy of the movies; so, he did a screen test, hired a casting director, and became Hollywood’s sweetheart overnight. In the 1928 film Wings, Cooper’s two-and-a-half minute scene told the movie studios that they were looking at a star.
In 1933, Cooper married East Coast socialite Veronica Balfe, whose positive, steadying influence helped him to take control of his life and get a handle on some previous indiscretions — like many movie stars, then and now, Cooper had a series of affairs and romantic partnerships that may have been less than advised.
In 1948, however, Cooper began an extramarital relationship with his co-star from The Fountainhead, Patricia Neal, which ended up stretching three years and catalyzing a legal separation from his wife. God was on Cooper’s side, though, and in 1953, Balfe and his daughter (both devout Catholics) joined him on a press tour for High Noon. While in Italy, the three of them had an audience with Pope Pius XII.
His daughter later recalled that at the papal audience, Cooper had rosaries up his arm and his hands full of other mementos from well-wishers. Because of his bad hip and back, he had trouble genuflecting, and as he did, “everything just fell, the medals and rosaries and holy cards...while he was scrambling around on the floor, he suddenly encountered this scarlet shoe and robe…”
That meeting with the pope was just what Cooper needed to set him back on track, and on his return from the High Noon press tour, moved back in with his wife and daughter and began to reconcile their relationship. He began attending regular Mass with them, and received spiritual counseling from their parish priest. After a few years, he concluded that perhaps “a little religion wouldn’t do me no harm,” and entered the church formally in 1959.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
“Professional soccer was my God,” wrote Gavin Peacock in a recent article in the June 2016 edition of Christianity Today. Growing up in a secular home in Southeast London and immersed in the pervasive culture of the game, he dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, who played for Charlton Athletic from 1962-1978, and taught him the fundamental “art of turning with a soccer ball.” So, imagine his surprise when, decades later, a call from God competely changed the course of his life.
Despite achieving his goal and signing a contract to play professional soccer at the age of sixteen, happiness still eluded him. “I was an insecure young man in the cutthroat world of professional sport,” Gavin said. “My sense of well-being depended entirely on my performance. I soon realized that [it] wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”
A few years later, however, “God intervened.” He found himself struggling for meaning and attended a local church on a Sunday night. After the service, the pastor invited him to a Bible study for young adults. “I walked into a room full of young people as the one with money, career, and fame,” Gavin wrote in the article. “I was the in crowd, and they were not. Yet when they spoke about Jesus, they displayed a life and joy that I did not have.” Over time, Gavin discovered the same life and joy in the gospel as the young people he had met in that small group and eventually “realized that the biggest obstacle to happiness was that soccer was king instead of Jesus.”
His newfound belief, however, was met with “a mixture of mockery and intrigue” by his teammates. Yet, the biggest test of faith came in 2002, at the age of 35, when soccer no longer remained a viable career because of a chronic knee injury. Subsequently offered a prestigious broadcasting career with the BBC, Gavin began “covering weekly shows . . . for several million UK viewers.” The highlight of his second career was anchoring the 2006 World Cup watched by more than one billion people around the globe.
But God even then had other plans for Gavin, soon calling him to pastoral ministry as a preacher. “Within weeks,” he wrote, “I went from speaking on TV about David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo to writing papers” and studying theology in Alberta, Canada. Today, Gavin is a pastor in Calgary with a heart for the gospel and a passion “to build men for Christ.”
“All those years ago,” Gavin said, “my earthly father taught me the art of turning, but it was my heavenly Father who turned me first to Christ and then to preach his gospel.” Today, he continues “to turn and teach others to turn,” not with a soccer ball, but towards Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
In our Sunday message series each week, we’ve been looking at the logical basis for our belief in Christ and his divinity. One of the greatest pieces of evidence that will convince others, however, is the passion and joy his followers excude. Join us each Sunday to ignite that passion and joy for yourself.
What does Nicole Kidman have in common with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint? Not a lot, at first glance, except for the most important similarity: they both came (or, in Kidman’s case, came back) to Catholicism after failing to find spiritual fulfillment in other faith expressions. For Seton, it was the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist that brought her in. Like C.S. Lewis, the Anglican understanding of Christ symbolically in the Eucharist was just not enough.
Born in the colony of New York in 1774 (before the United States became a nation), Elizabeth Ann Bayley was very active in her Anglican faith. Married at nineteen, she had a very different outlook on faith from that of her husband, William Seton. Jesuit Bernard Bassett describes Elizabeth’s faith as “earnest, sincere . . . with a marked evangelical streak,” while William, in contrast, was “not very religious . . . part of a new breed of men [for whom trade came first], who we would call executives today.”
In her young, married life, Elizabeth gradually amassed a variety of spiritual beliefs, often confusing those around her. She would wear a Catholic crucifix, supported those who chose the cloistered life, liked the doctrine of saints and angels, and appreciated spiritual practices from many different sources, including the quiet, constant faith of Quakers, the emotionalism from philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, strict Calvinist beliefs on sin and punishment. She even practiced meditation, which was highly unusual for the 1800s.
She became deeply close to a cleric at her Anglican church, Henry Hobart, whom she looked to as an important spiritual guide and religious authority. “Elizabeth was in love with God, and Henry Hobart was the man charged in God’s providence with bringing this love to a higher earthly potential,” writes Fr. Charles P. Connor.
In 1802, William Seton’s health began to fail, and he was advised to move somewhere with a gentler climate in order to heal. Because of family and business connections, the “gentle climate” chosen was the Italian countryside. While in Italy, the Setons’ closest friends were devout Catholics. It is unknown whether they exerted any influence over William’s faith, but they certainly impacted Elizabeth’s. After William’s death in 1803, she traveled extensively with them to Catholic shrines and holy places, and her writings began to reflect a deeper penchant for Catholic theology.
In a letter from that period, she wrote of her longing to believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “How happy I would be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do . . . how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life.”
Upon her return to the United States, her Anglican friends and family were shocked by her “new” Catholic beliefs; Henry Hobart, once deeply supportive of her unique religious expression, became a harsh critic. But convinced through prayer and meditation on several Catholic texts, the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist was her catalyst. She knew that Catholicism was the faith expression she had been longing for and went on to do incredible work through it.
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
As much as we can draw from the experiences of Catholic converts from years and decades past, there’s always something to be said for people actively converting to, engaging with, and practicing Catholicism with all of us right now. Something about living in the same time and space with people walking the same faith journey speaks power into the case for Christ in ways that historical figures cannot.
You might know some of these people from the big screen, too, even if you didn’t know that they spend their Sunday mornings the same way you do. Ever heard of Nicole Kidman? This Oscar-, Emmy-, and Golden-Globe-winning actress (famous for roles in the TV series Big Little Lies and the movies Moulin Rouge!, Boy Erased, and Aquaman, to name a few) centers herself in the pews with her family every week in their hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
Growing up in Australia, Kidman was raised in the Catholic faith and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at Monte Sant’Angelo College. She has a strong belief in God, greatly influenced by her “very Catholic grandmother” and her young and early exposure to prayer. “A lot of my friends tease me,” Kidman said in an interview with Vanity Fair, but she makes church with her family a priority (and even though her husband, country music star Keith Urban, doesn’t share her Catholic beliefs, he comes too, she said, noting “that’s how we are raising our children”).
Kidman didn’t always practice as regularly as she does now. In fact, she married her first husband, Tom Cruise, in the Church of Scientology, dabbling in both Scientology and Buddhism while with him. While she didn’t raise her two children (with Cruise) in the Church of Scientology, she says that she was “definitely not a practicing Catholic” during the ten years she was married to him. She notes that she felt estranged from the Catholic faith, but that neither Scientology nor Buddhism fulfilled her sense of spiritual longing.
But she never fully renounced her Catholic upbringing, though, because when preparing to marry Keith Urban, she applied for (and was granted) an annulment so that she could marry him in the Catholic Church.
Her marriage to Urban was called a “kind of spiritual homecoming,” her longtime friend and spiritual advisor Father Paul Coleman said. The Jesuit priest, who officiated the ceremony, dedicated his message to the bride and groom on the secret of keeping love alive — making time for each other in their relationship, as each made space for God to guide them. Kidman has given several interviews in which she mentions the centrality of her Catholic faith to the rest of her life.
“Catholicism is a part of my life. Last Easter time was lovely because I was back with my family, which was the first time in a long while that I spent Easter with my huge extended Catholic family, with aunts and cousins from all over the place,” she said in 2017. “Being Catholic was so much a part of my childhood, that it still remains with me and forms so much of my life experience [though I lapsed practicing for several years].”
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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