It is 100 years today that Sir Alec Guinness CBE first saw the light of day. The worldwide fame and acclamation he received for his talented impersonations in diverse roles in cinema and theatre, is well known. But Alec Guinness also has a fascinating personal story to tell, including his conversion to Catholicism. From difficult and humble origins, along the way to becoming one of the most admired, outstanding and versatile of British actors, Alec Guinness found his way to the discovery of truth in the Catholic Church.
Recent discussion on our blog with some non-believers has resulted in a constant stream of questions and answers going back and forth, with no apparent satisfactory outcome. Of course one can always hope and pray that a tiny seed of faith might have been sown somewhere along the line that will eventually lead to the agnostics rethinking their views, but on the whole such discussions appear to end in an unsatisfactory stale mate!
Discovering faith is usually the result of a long, studious and even painful search, requiring much prayer and big doses of humility, plus a genuine desire to turn away from all that knowingly separates one from God (serious sin).
But “every man treads a virgin path to God” as Leon Bloy is supposed to have said, meaning that there are as many reasons for conversion as there are people who convert.
One of the most delightful I think is the story behind Alec Guinness’ conversion to Catholicism. He was filming an episode of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” series in a remote French village when:
“One evening Guinness, still in costume, was on his way back to his lodgings. A little boy, mistaking him for the real thing, grabbed his hand and trustingly accompanied the “priest.”
That incident affected Guinness. “Continuing my walk,” he said, “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
Shortly thereafter, Guinness’s son Matthew, age eleven, was stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down. The future for the boy was doubtful, and at the end of each day’s work on the film, Guinness began dropping in at a little Catholic church on his route home. He decided to strike a bargain with God: If God would let Matthew recover, Guinness would not stand in the way if the boy wished to become Catholic.
Happily Matthew recovered completely, and Guinness and his wife enrolled him in a Jesuit academy. At the age of fifteen, Matthew announced that he wished to become Catholic. Guinness kept his end of the bargain with God: He readily agreed to the conversion.
But God wanted much more. Guinness began to study Catholicism. He had long talks with a Catholic priest. He made a retreat at a Trappist abbey. He even attended Mass with Grace Kelly while he was working on a film in Los Angeles. The doctrines of indulgences and infallibility slowed him for a time, but his description of finally entering the Church said it all: “There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things.”
Guinness was received into the Catholic Church by the bishop of Portsmouth, and while he was in Sri Lanka making The Bridge over the River Kwai, his wife surprised him by also converting…”