Oscar Wilde is one of the most famous 19th century authors and playwrights, having written such works as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.
What is less known about him is that, after years of flirting with the Church, he had a death bed conversion to Catholicism.
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854, Wilde was baptized as an infant in an Anglican church. His mother, Jane, however, was drawn to Catholicism and would often visit Mass. When Oscar was a young child, she asked her local priest to instruct her children in the Catholic faith, though it’s unclear if she herself ever joined the Church officially.
Wilde, though he received some Catholic instruction, did not consider himself a Catholic growing up. While at Oxford for university studies, he started to seriously consider becoming Catholic, even becoming a priest. But he also joined the Free Masons around the same time, and commented he “would be awfully sorry to give it up if I secede from the Protestant Heresy.”
In 1877, at the age of 23, he traveled to Rome and had a meeting with Pope Pius IX that left him “speechless,” and he started reading the books of Bl. John Cardinal Newman. He is quoted as having said, the Catholic Church is “for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” In 1878, he befriended a priest and scheduled a date on which he would be received officially into the Church. But his family was against it: his father threatened to cut off his funds if he joined. At the last minute, Wilde decided against joining.
Years later in 1895, after having achieved literary fame, he was accused of sodomy, or of having committed homosexual acts, which was illegal in England at the time. After a lengthy public trial, he was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor.
During his time in prison his health declined, but he also experienced a spiritual renewal. Upon release, he made a request to the Society of Jesus for a six month retreat. Unfortunately, he was turned down. Reports say he wept at hearing the rejection. Nonetheless, he told a journalist regarding the Catholic Church, “I intend to be received before long.”
But he left England for France, where he lived for a few years depressed and in poverty, spending the little money he had on alcohol.
In 1900, he developed cerebral meningitis and became very sick. When it became clear he might die, his friend and apparent homosexual lover Robbie Ross who was with him called for a Catholic priest. When the priest arrived, Wilde requested to be received into the Catholic Church. The priest later recounted how it happened:
“As the voiture [carriage] rolled through the dark streets that wintry night, the sad story of Oscar Wilde was in part repeated to me…
“Robert Ross knelt by the bedside, assisting me as best he could while I administered conditional baptism, and afterwards answering the responses while I gave Extreme Unction to the prostrate man and recited the prayers for the dying.
“As the man was in a semi-comatose condition, I did not venture to administer the Holy Viaticum [Eucharist]; still I must add that he could be roused and was roused from this state in my presence. When roused, he gave signs of being inwardly conscious…
“Indeed I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and gave him the Last Sacraments… And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.”
The next day, Wilde died.