Admirers of G.K. Chesterton had cause for rejoicing earlier this month when it was announced that a British bishop will appoint a cleric to begin the investigation into a possible canonization cause of the British writer and thinker.
Whether or not Chesterton is eventually canonized, one thing is sure — he has played a vital role in bringing many to the Faith, including the dramatic conversion of literary scholar Joseph Pearce.
Scrapping for a good fight
As the writer explains in his forthcoming book, “Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love” (available Sept. 5 from St. Benedict Press, $22.95) Pearce began his life in a working-class family in the East End of London, whose Cockney inhabitants have a checkered tradition of patriotism, tribal loyalty and hard work mixed with organized crime, rough union battles and gang warfare.
England in the late 1960s and early ’70s was receiving waves of immigrants from Pakistan and India, and many homegrown English felt threatened. By the time Pearce was 15 in 1976, he had joined the right-wing National Front — a racist, neo-Nazi gang with political pretensions. Within a year he had left school and become the editor of the gang’s newspaper.
Scrapping for a good fight, he linked up with the loyalist paramilitary groups in Ulster to defend his country’s heritage from the Irish nationalists. Taking on their anti-Catholic bitterness, Pearce rallied round his new tribe with the intention of being a full-time right-wing revolutionary. In 1982 he was jailed for six months for publishing material that was likely to incite racial hatred.
The visit to Britain of Pope John Paul II in 1982 was another flash point. He joined the Protestant-nationalist protests against the visit, and when he got out of jail went straight back to his editorship of the paper. By 1985 he was sentenced to a full year, but his second incarceration was of a different order.
During his first prison term, Pearce had come across Chesterton’s writings. First attracted to the Catholic convert’s personality and politics, he soon found that he was reading Chesterton’s defense of the Catholic faith. Against this offense, Pearce, who was raised nominally Anglican, had no defense.
Consequently, on his second entrance to prison, Pearce declared his religion to be Catholic, and he recounts how in the first night in solitary confinement he clutched a rosary, fingering the beads and opening his heart to God’s love.
On his release in 1986, he decided to leave his political involvement. He later left London and moved into the country, got a job in a book warehouse and, with only a substandard high school education, started to research and write a biography of Chesterton. In 1989, at Our Lady, Mother of God Church in Norwich, Pearce finally was received into the Church.
A literary life
Pearce continued to work on his biography of Chesterton, and through a conversation with one of the publisher’s sales agents who visited the book warehouse, he got the name of an editor in the biographies division, and when the manuscript was finished, sent it off. It was accepted instantly and “Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton” was published in 1996.
A few years later, Pearce suggested to the budding Ave Maria College that it might employ him as a writer-in-residence. He married his wife, Susannah, and moved to the United States and hasn’t looked back.
Pearce has produced 19 books, founded and edited the bimonthly literary journal StAR (St. Austin Review), has been writer-in-residence and professor of English literature at Ave Maria University and now at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He lectures on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others around the world.
Unlocking the riddle
Pearce was looking for answers. His sharp intellect and bright curiosity turned him toward one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. However, the story of any conversion to the Catholic faith is always a journey of both the head and the heart. Pearce’s intellectual search was also a search for reconciliation instead of division and love instead of hatred.
Chesterton once said that the universe was a riddle, and the Catholic faith was the key that unlocked the riddle. For Pearce, the Faith was also the key that unlocked the prison house of his hate-filled heart and opened it to the Light of Life and the joy of Everlasting Freedom.
Father Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, S.C.