Janne Haaland Matlary converted and became a Catholic because she persistently and sincerely looked for truth. Her story of conversion and maturing in faith sheds light on the path of those who continue to search, as well as inciting them to never grow discouraged.
Janne Haaland Matlary is a professor of social studies at the University of Oslo, and a member of the Papal Council on Family Issues. In the years 1997 to 2000, she held the position of Norway’s Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
Janne was born in 1957, in a small seaside town in the south of Norway. The town was inhabited by fishermen and sailors. Many of them lost their lives at sea. They experienced the power of the sea’s magnitude and were characterised by simple, strong faith, which they expressed publicly. They were Puritans and read the Holy Scriptures daily.
Janne had no siblings. She was a very talented pupil. She very much liked to read. Like her parents, she would immerse herself in reading books the whole evening. Already as a child, she longed for the fullness of happiness, and she loved nature. She very much liked taking a boat out to sea to catch fish, and she loved swimming, sailing and hiking in the mountains.
“Conversion to Christianity was the last thing that I could have imagined in my life” (J. H. Matlary)
In school, she had wonderful teachers, who not only shared their knowledge with the children, but also taught them how to work on forming their character. The study of the greatest works of European literature was mandatory. Janne felt the existence of spiritual depth in the behaviour of the great characters of European literature: in the rectitude of their characters, in their selfless, pure love, which never tolerated evil and always sided with good. In classes, the teachers and their students thoroughly analysed the virtues and vices of the heroes of the books being discussed. This way, the children learned about altruism, distinguishing good from evil, fighting egoism and other vices, as well as forming their own virtues. From the very first class of primary school, the children were obliged to learn a psalm by heart every week. They also learned a great deal about Jesus’ life and the Bible.
Janne understood that Christianity was not a philosophical system and a set of moral principles, but was Jesus Christ Himself, who was living, teaching and healing just as he had 2000 years earlier
In her adolescence, Janne went through a crisis of faith. During a stay at winter camp with a religious group of Protestant youth, she robustly defended herself against religious “brainwashing”. She ran off into the mountains with a friend to breathe in freedom in Nature’s bosom. From that time on, Janne kept her distance from all Christian groups in her town.
During her studies
Janne was nineteen when she finished school. At that time, she received a year’s scholarship to study in the United States. She considered herself to be an agnostic, and at times she identified herself as an atheist. She felt a distaste for Christians; she felt that the vast majority of them were hypocrites or naïvely ignorant. Many years later, she confessed: “Conversion to Christianity was the last thing that I could have imagined in my life.”
In the US, she began studying philosophy at the Lutheran Augsburg College. She was very interested in questions dealing with the origin of mankind, the existence of God and the possibility of understanding objective truth. She studied classical and medieval philosophy: Plato, Aristotle, St Bonaventure and St Thomas Aquinas.
Professor Richard McKeon, who was a Catholic, guided her through the arcana of philosophy and had a great influence over her. He showed her the logical beauty of Thomism and scholasticism, but he wasn’t interested in living out Christian principles in everyday life.
For Janne, the first year of her studies was a time of discovering the richness of philosophical thought and of delving into the Christian roots of European civilisation.
After a year in the US, Janne returned to Oslo to study political philosophy at the local university. Having received a two-year scholarship to continue her studies in the US, she remained in Oslo for just one year, but returned there for the last year of her studies and to write her master’s thesis.
Even back then, Janne refused to accept the division between politics and ethics. She was convinced that politics should be based on an inviolable moral foundation, because there are enduring moral norms which define good and evil, and which no parliamentary majority can change. Janne didn’t accept moral relativism and subjectivism. She was convinced that there was an objective truth which applied to everyone, and that the chief objective of science was to seek it.
From understanding to faith
Returning to Oslo for her last year of studies, Janne learned that there was a French Dominican priest working there who was a specialist in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. She immediately made contact with him and had weekly private consultations with him for half a year, quickly becoming his privileged student. Since Thomist philosophy can’t be separated from theology, their conversations quickly developed into discussions of the Catholic faith.
At this time, Janne went to a Catholic mass out of curiosity and was amazed by the liturgy. She began to attend mass regularly, feeling a mystical presence of God’s love there. She gradually unburdened herself of her prejudices that Catholicism was for people who were naïve and unsophisticated. But she continued to persuade herself that the Catholic Church did not apply to her.
At one of the weekly meetings with the Dominican priest, Janne was confronted with the question as to whether she intended to become a Catholic. She replied that it didn’t interest her, because she was an agnostic and identified only with the rational philosophical system of St Thomas Aquinas. However, the question provoked disquiet within her, even though she didn’t consider herself a Christian and had no intention of becoming one. She liked the music, culture and ethical system of the Catholic Church, but it never entered her mind to become a Catholic. However, the Dominican’s question wouldn’t leave her in peace. She wanted at all costs to maintain her independence and freedom. So why did the question cause her such apprehension? Only after a certain time did she realise that it related to the person of Jesus Christ. A few months later, without knowing why, she began to think of Jesus Christ as a real, living person who was in fact very close to her. Janne understood that Christianity was not a philosophical system and a set of moral principles, but was Jesus Christ Himself, who was living, teaching and healing just as he had 2000 years earlier. The Lord Jesus led her to recognise that He was truly present in the Eucharist, and that He loved her, and she became captivated by His person. She understood that the most important thing in her life was to establish personal bonds of love with Jesus.
The call of the laity is to manifest Christ’s presence in the world through our work, our prayer, our rest and our selfless service to others
Janne went to Sunday mass regularly, because she experienced the true personal presence of Jesus there. The experience was at once the simplest and yet the most difficult, touching upon the ultimate meaning of life. The experience of the living presence of Jesus made her fall in love with Him, as well as with the Church, which is His mystical body. Enthralled, Janne began to talk to everyone about Jesus and His Church, and she couldn’t wait for Sunday mass. Jesus Christ became for her a flame, which time and time again ignited itself in her heart and called her to unite herself with Him in love. For her, this was a completely new experience of the joy of the pure love that Jesus bestowed on her. She began to spend great amounts of time reading the stories of various conversions, as well as the mystical works of St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila. The decision to enter the Catholic Church was particularly difficult for Janne. In Norway, Catholics are treated like a foreign body. All the anti-Catholic superstitions of the Reformation continue there today. The entire country of Norway is strongly anti-Catholic, and Janne was afraid of the negative reactions of her parents, family and friends when they learned of her conversion.
In her memoirs of this time, Janne writes that the discovery had the magnitude of a “Copernican revolution”: “Today I understood that in the consecrated host there is an objective reality independent of my opinion or of what I may or may not believe. When Catholics talk about the Real Presence, they are expressing the conviction that Christ is present in the elements of bread and wine, which, after consecration by the priest, become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the greatest mystery of the faith, the core of the mass, and the key to understanding Catholic teaching about the sacraments.”
Jesus’ Real Presence in the form of bread and wine lies at the centre of Catholic teaching. It is an objective reality, regardless of whether anyone believes in it or not. This was a breathtaking discovery for Janne. She had been looking for the sense of life in ancient philosophy and in metaphysics; she had been looking for truth, justice, goodness and beauty. Now she had discovered that everything she had been looking for was in the Person of Christ, the true God who became a true man and is truly present in the Eucharist. She understood that it’s not man who is at the centre of the universe, but God, who exists objectively. For Janne, this was the most important and most joyful discovery. Objective Truth exists. It is Love and can be found and recognised in the person of Jesus Christ, who is present in the Eucharist. There exists a divine order, sense and goal in life, regardless of the outlook and limitations of mankind.
Janne understood that Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist does not reveal itself through reading books or through reasoning. The acceptance of this truth is a grace, a gift freely given. But to receive it, a person must make the effort to look for it.
Participation in the mass was attractive for Janne not because she found a beautiful liturgy, interesting sermons or music there, but because she experienced there the presence of Christ, who overwhelmed her with His love. Finding herself in front of the tabernacle in which the consecrated hosts were kept, Janne knew that it was right there that true love and an ultimate sense of human existence were to be found. She went to mass like a lover going to a meeting with her beloved Person.
“Each of us can become a saint; that is, we can become what God wants us to become. We have only to take the decision, and to take it here and now, not putting it off until tomorrow” (St Josemaría Escrivá)
Towards the end of 1981, Janne wrote a letter to the Vatican, in which she advised them that she was considering entering the Catholic Church, but she first very much wanted to get to know the Pope. She was surprised at the rapid response. The prefect of the papal residence assured her that when she arrived in Rome she should let him know, and then she would be able to meet John Paul II personally.
Janne went to Rome with her parents, who were opposed to her entry into the Catholic Church. Her mother was particularly opposed. The Catholic Church in Norway was legalised in 1884, when a number of Norwegian writers and intellectuals converted. They most often became acquainted with the Catholic Church during studies in Italy or France. However, to the present day, there is a prevailing attitude that only a foreigner can be a Catholic. For the most part, the Catholic Church in Norway is made up of immigrants. This is a community which numbered around 40,000 faithful in 2000, with 12,000 nativeborn Norwegians.
Janne, along with her parents, was granted an audience with John Paul II on 2 December 1981. The meeting with the Pope made an enormous impression on them, as they experienced the warmth of his holiness. On returning to Norway, Janne began direct preparation to enter the community of the Catholic Church. This solemn event took place at Easter in 1982. Janne was twenty-five years old and was in love with the Christ of the Catholic Church, who was living, teaching and forgiving all sins.
After her official reception into the Catholic Church, Janne continued her studies in Oslo. During this time, she met her future husband, Arpad Louis Matlary, a young doctor who was an immigrant from Hungary. The first time she noticed him was when he was taking Communion, and from that time onward they met regularly at mass. Their falling in love was mutual. Her future husband was the son of a Hungarian general, an aristocrat who was persecuted and murdered by the communists. He managed to escape from communist Hungary in 1956. He settled in Norway, where he finished his medical studies.
Janne and Arpad received the sacrament of matrimony in 1985, in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They were accompanied by a friend, who was a Hungarian Benedictine. In the sacrament of matrimony, Jesus united them in the indissoluble bond of His love. The two of them became one flesh. They commenced the difficult yet beautiful years of married life. Bearing four children, Janne experienced the joys and difficulties of motherhood. At the same time, she worked on her doctorate.
After some years, she revealed that being both a wife and a mother was a revolutionary experience for her. She discovered that conceiving a child, waiting for the birth and the birth itself was the parents’ participation in God’s act of creating a new person. A newborn child is a miracle above all other miracles, and motherhood and fatherhood transform husband and wife spiritually. It becomes for them a unique opportunity for growth in unconditional love. The bearing and raising of children was an extraordinary school of love for Janne and her husband.
Ten years after her conversion, Janne experienced a crisis of faith, a time of spiritual dryness. She was beset by obtrusive thoughts of leaving the Church. She began to criticise the behaviour of the priests and bishops in Norway, regarding them as passive and not engaging in the public sphere. As it later turned out, the chief cause of her frustration was not the behaviour of the clergy, but her own neglect of her daily prayer and the sacrament of confession.
She overcame this painful crisis in December 1992, during a visit by her whole family to the Benedictine abbey in Pannonhalma, Hungary. Janne confided her spiritual problems to an 82-year-old Benedictine, who was the personification of goodness and wisdom. She told him that her faith was dissipating and that she was going through a very difficult time. The priest looked at her lovingly and told her that the only treatment that she needed now was absolution. At the same time, he asked her to prepare herself for a sacramental confession. Janne was so overcome that she was speechless, since she hadn’t been to confession in a long time. At that point, she understood that the principle cause of all spiritual crises is failing to pray and remaining in a state of sin.
The principle cause of all spiritual crises is failing to pray and remaining in a state of sin
That evening, after Janne had put her children to bed, she went to confession. She stood before Jesus with complete honesty and confessed all her sins and omissions, repenting them from the depths of her heart and committing herself to making amends. When her confessor pronounced the sacramental formula for absolution, Janne felt herself overcome by unimaginable love and God’s mercy, filling her with a joy that she had never before experienced in life. This became a radical turning point in her life. The God who had seemed so distant from her became the closest of the close and performed a miracle of spiritual renewal in Janne, forgiving her all her sins. His closeness and love penetrated her entire person and brought her the unimaginable joy of resurrected life.
When Janne returned to Oslo with her family, she immediately wrote to her confessor in Pannonhalma that the extraordinary joy and divine mercy that she had experienced in the absolution was still with her. The Benedictine priest responded: “Be grateful for this exceptional grace and pray more”. He encouraged her to pray diligently every day and to listen to God’s voice. After this confession, Janne understood that conversion is not a oneoff action; it is a process which continues throughout life. By neglecting prayer, through laziness and a lack of self-discipline, by remaining in mortal sin and by avoiding confession, one can very easily lose the treasure of faith. That is why we should renew the act of entrusting ourselves to God and surrendering to Him every day through diligent daily prayer, the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist, self-discipline, mortification of the senses and undertaking the difficulty of walking with Christ on the steep and narrow path to heaven.
Caring for the treasure of faith
In February 1995, the Vatican suggested that Janne be a member of the Holy See’s delegation to an international conference in Copenhagen organised by the UN. She was very pleased to have the recognition and the privilege of representing the Holy Father.
One of the members of the Vatican delegation, who practised the spirituality of St Jose Escriva de Balaguer, had a very positive influence on Janne. The example of his authentic faith and the reading of books by St Escriva made Janne realise that there was a disconnection between her “private” life of faith and her professional involvement in her work. At that point, she understood that one should be united to Christ everywhere; that our work should manifest His presence and love. Christ, in becoming a true man, “somehow” united himself with everyone, and is with each of us in every situation of our lives. The call of the laity is to manifest Christ’s presence in the world through our work, our prayer, our rest and our selfless service to others. This won’t be possible without diligent care of our spiritual lives, daily prayer, confession and the Eucharist, mortification, regular spiritual formation and good works. For Janne, realising this truth was like finding a life jacket on the open sea.
One’s interior life is the foundation of one’s exterior life. There cannot be a separation between faith and life
For Janne, the powerful and unequivocal statements of St Escriva were hard and demanding. They challenged her to live the present moment and to accept her situation because of Christ’s presence in it. Each of us can become a saint; that is, we can become what God wants us to become. We have only to take the decision, and to take it here and now, not putting it off until tomorrow. St Escriva wrote that there are two ways to peel a potato: the first is to simply perform the act of peeling a potato; the second is to peel the potato with the awareness of fulfilling God’s will and giving Him glory. The Christian life is one – in the home, at work and in church. That is why we should allow Jesus to use us to transform the pagan world in which we live into a Christian world.
The most important choice
In 1997, the new Norwegian Secretary of Foreign Affairs from the Christian Democratic Party called Janne with the proposition that she accept the position of deputy secretary. She was pleasantly surprised at the proposition, which she happily accepted. She fulfilled the function of Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs until the government lost power, in March 2000.
What interested Janne most about the work of being a government minister was the effort expended in the goal of overcoming mutual animosity and hatred in international relations. She travelled on diplomatic missions to the Balkans and other explosive regions of the world. She realised that without forgiveness, it isn’t possible to build enduring peace. But in the face of the greatest atrocities, forgiveness is possible only in union with Christ, who enables us to live out His love, in accordance with the Gospel and the Ten Commandments. However, if a person rejects Christ, they embark on a path that leads to the greatest of tragedies, such as the wretchedness of egoism and the ever tightening spiral of hatefulness and the desire for revenge.
Objective Truth exists. It is Love and can be found and recognised in the person of Jesus Christ, who is present in the Eucharist
In her many speeches, Janne emphasised that our times are reminiscent of the moral decadence and fall of the Roman Empire. Christians are called upon to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13–14) and to defend the sanctity of the family, the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage, the dignity of every person, and each person’s right to life from conception to natural death. They should always go against the current. With great humility and complete trust in Christ, they should oppose barbaric laws introducing abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilisation and the gender ideology. The Lord Jesus ensures that we are not alone in the struggle against the powers of evil: “In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
When Janne experienced a crisis of faith, because of her neglect of her spiritual life, she was rescued by going to confession and returning to daily prayer. Through that experience, she rediscovered that one can live a true life only in union with Christ. One’s interior life is the foundation of one’s exterior life. There cannot be a separation between faith and life. Janne understood that she had to allow Christ to form her personhood and she had to find time for daily prayer, because without it one dies off spiritually and loses the treasure of faith. Only filled with Christ’s love are we in a position to fruitfully work and change ourselves and the world. We need to continually confirm this most important choice, which is the decision to follow Christ, with our life, through diligent prayer, and by receiving Him in the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist.